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Activists Battle Liberia's Rape Problem


Rape was a common means of abuse during Liberia's brutal civil war and it remains rampant despite the enactment of one of West Africa's toughest rape laws. Activists are calling for a specialized court to deal with rape cases because they say an overburdened judicial system is hampering convictions and discouraging victims from coming forward. Kari Barber has more for VOA from Dakar, with additional reporting by Prince Collins in Monrovia.

In a courtroom in Liberia, Sarah Toe is pressing charges against the man she says raped her six-year-old daughter last month. She describes what happened.

"A 45-year-old man raped my six-year-old daughter when she was on her way home from school. I noticed it when my daughter came home bleeding," she said. "Doctors said her situation was grave, and she would not survive."

The child is now at home, and her mother says she is seeking swift justice.

"That is my only child and I am very worried over this situation," she explained. "I have taken the case to court. I am challenging the judicial system to immediately look into this grave issue. I do not want justice tomorrow, I do not want it the day after, but I need it now."

Toe is an exception in Liberia where, despite a stringent rape law adopted in 2005, few rape trials are being heard in court.

Chief prosecutor for the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia, Esther Seton Cee, says many rape victims and parents of rape victims are discouraged from reporting the crime because the overworked court system is slow to prosecute.

Cee says she believes the answer is to create a new court for rape cases.

"We have advocated for a specialized court that would be able to carry out judication faster. That is what we are waiting on," she said.

Cee says parents of rape victims often settle out of court for money with the accused rapist because they believe they are protecting their child from public embarrassment. She says this slows down and undermines the judicial process.

Cee says sensitizing parents to the true nature of rape could encourage them to push forward with prosecutions. Groups have used public awareness campaigns, including radio jingles, aiming to empower women, girls and families against sexual abuse.

"When the parents understand the nature of the crime that is involved, they will stop compromising," she said.

During the country's civil war many young girls and women were forcibly taken to act as cooks, cleaners and sex slaves for the fighters.

Liberia's rape law has been a focus point for President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has said that no rapists would go unpunished. Human rights organizations say the ineffective implementation of the rape law reflects badly needed reform in the entire judicial system.

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