— In the lead up to Women’s Day, on March 8, Liberia has become the latest nation to sign a pledge to end violence against women and girls. In Dakar, the human-rights group U.N. Women
says nearly 100 countries have no specific legal provisions against domestic violence.
A 45-year-old housewife from Monrovia, Lucy Morris, says violence against women is a serious problem in Liberia.
“Many of us are beaten by our husbands. My husband beats me almost every time. He hurts me a lot. I have taken the complaints to the female [rights] lawyer and they have called him for an investigation, but this is still happening," she said.
Morris is not alone.
The latest data from the World Health Organization (WHO) show 33 percent of married women in Liberia have reported experiencing domestic violence. Up to 77 percent of Liberian women say they have been the victim of sexual violence.
Human rights groups say it is likely these numbers are even higher, as many of the cases go unreported.
Liberian Ministry of Gender and Development spokesperson Smith Toby says Liberia has laws in place against both domestic violence and rape, but many cases are never prosecuted.
“All of these things [rape, violence] happen, but at times it is being settled outside of court. There is a situation where some family members will come in and they want to settle it the family way. And those out-of-court settlements are what the government is trying to put a very, very strong restriction on,” he said.
He said many women are too scared to report sexual or domestic violence.
Earlier this month, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf took a step forward in addressing the issue when she signed a U.N. pledge to end violence against women and girls. She is only the 19th head of state to do so.
In the pledge, the Liberian government has promised to adopt and implement stronger domestic violence legislation, allocate funds for a National Action Plan on Sexual and Gender-based Violence, and increase efforts to improve women’s access to justice in cases of gender-based violence.
Toby said this pledge will help more women come forward and bring the perpetrators of violence to justice.
"Now you have women in Liberia who can speak on issues that affect them," he said. "They know what their rights are and they speak for their rights. So it is the hope of the ministry that the signing of this document will also boost awareness and help women, and also educate men against gender and sexual-based violence, and domestic violence.”
The acting administrative coordinator of Women in Progressive Action is Salome Cankpane. Her local aid organization helps victims of gender-based violence seek legal counsel.
She says the pledge is an important gesture on behalf of the government, but it is now up to Liberian women to take a stand.
“The government has been trying to stop it [violence against women] because they have put rules in place. The laws are there," she said. "I think this particular signing is going to take effect - if we, who hear these cases, bring it up and speak about it, and speak against it, the law will be forced to take effect. Justice will follow right now.”
In accordance with the pledge, Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Development says they plan to continue to work alongside the government, as well as human-rights groups, to ensure that the rights of women and girls are better protected.