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Liberia's Sex Offenders Go Unpunished

Liberia has had peace for almost two years, but no one has been prosecuted for crimes against thousands of Liberian women who were raped or sexually abused during the 14-year civil war. As Liberians are in the process of electing a new government, Liberian women say they hope new leaders will pass laws that will protect them.

For three years, a group of around 60 Liberian women have been meeting in a field near the center of Monrovia to pray for peace to return to their country destroyed by civil war. Some of the original members of the group remember praying during an attempt by rebels to take the capital city and overthrow President Charles Taylor.

Now, Mr. Taylor is gone and Liberia is holding elections to put an end to the transitional government, which took over from him. Maria Man, a long time member of the group, says that they are now praying for good governance, and someone who will try and address the problems of sexual abuse that thousands of women suffer even today in Liberia.

"During the war, women were raped by our own sons, by our husbands and many other things that women went through," she said. "It is our time in Liberia to come as women to vote that they may have a better Liberia tomorrow."

It remains unclear how and when those responsible for their crimes will be prosecuted. Liberia's judicial system is still in tatters following the war and does not have enough resources for prosecutors, judges, and lawyers.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, proposed in 2003, is not yet up and running, and will not be able to encourage victims to tell their stories for a long time.

The United Nations has encouraged Liberian police to set up a special unit that deals with rape and employs women officers.

One of Liberia's presidential candidates, and a likely participant in a second round of presidential elections, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has focused on women and the problems they face in Liberia in her campaign.

"We are going to strengthen the courts and the legal system to enforce the prosecution of anybody who commits rape," she said. "We are going also to work with women's organizations so they can provide the means of service to our girl populations, particularly those who are now prostitutes."

An Amnesty International report published in December 2004, estimated that between 60 to 70 percent of Liberia's population have suffered some sort of sexual violence. But the London-based organization found it difficult to establish how many women were victims because of their unwillingness to talk about their experiences.

Rape has been established as a crime against humanity since 2001, when three Bosnian Serbs were convicted of sexual violence during the Bosnian war.