Hawa was 12. Arma is 7. Veronica is 11. Vivian is 15. Aisha is 10. All five girls share an increasingly common experience in Liberia: each was raped.
Hawa was raped, and killed.
They are five out of the 462 sexual violence cases that were reported in Liberia between January and April 2018. At least five girls are sexually abused every day in Liberia.
And these are only the reported cases – cases that families have braved the associated stigma and distrust of the system to report. We cannot quantify how much sexual abuse of children goes unreported to avoid the stigma, or is reported but then ignored by government agencies.
In 2017, over half of sexual violence cases involved girls under the age of 18. There are even reports of the sexual abuse of babies under the age of one.
These grim statistics are unavoidably defining Liberian society. We are becoming a country that is unable or unwilling to protect the most vulnerable of us – our children. What are our values if we cannot protect our children? What is the future of our society if our children are the easy victims of sexual violence? What is the value of our laws and policies if they cannot effectively respond to this growing menace?
Liberians love to “move on.” We believe moving on is linked to our national character of resilience, of which we are very proud. To cope with national traumas – our wars, the Ebola outbreak – we have developed the attitude that nothing really comes out of belaboring pain. It is better to move on. Here, too, we seem to be asking families and survivors, as well as abusers, to somehow move on.
Rape and child sexual abuse are lifelong haunting experiences. Survivors cannot simply “move on” from the experience of having their bodies and minds violated. Some have managed to dull the pain by shelving the experience for many years, but the reality is that one cannot simply “move on” when a society does not take the extra steps to show abused persons that their experiences were wrong and their tormentors punishable.
Furthermore, studies show that children who are abused are more likely to drop out of school, be trafficked, engage in criminal activity, fall into depression, or perpetuate violence. As more of our children become vulnerable to abuse, without the needed effective response, the Liberian government and our society may be unwittingly inviting an insecure future.
Encouraging citizens to report abuse is simply not enough. In our society of taboos, stigmas and secrets, it takes a lot for an individual, especially a child, to come forward in public. The Liberian government has to demonstrate its commitment to dealing with cases of alleged sexual abuse. The current investigative standards – as demonstrated in the high profile More Than Me case – are poor, and raises question about the commitments of the government to protect its children.
In October 2018, the government mandated a local board to look into reports of widespread sexual abuse by the co-founder of the More Than Me school in Monrovia. Several Liberian young girls were infected with HIV/AIDS as a result of their alleged abuse. But six months later, there has been no reported movement. As of this writing, there is no report from the Committee, and no word from the Ministries of Gender and Education, both of which promised to “look into the matter meticulously.”
It is safe to say, here, again, we have tried to just move on!
The lack of a reliable system to effectively investigate and prosecute offenders undermines an already traumatized person from venturing forward. This not only breeds distrust among the abused, it compels them into an unhealthy silence and resignation. And it emboldens abusers.
Indeed, we have developed laws and policies concerning child rights over the last few years. However, those legal frameworks are only as good as the paper on which they are written if we continue to demonstrate a lack of political will to enforce them. Understandably, the government is grappling with competing priorities, all of which are important. However, none ought to diminish the need to increase budgetary support in building the needed capacities and support systems to fight the growing scourge of rape and child sexual abuse.
It is time to strengthen the Child Protection Units of the Liberia National Police. Investigative officers need to be trained to properly handle reported cases of child sexual abuse and rape including the provision of counselling and other protective services for abused persons. Educational programs and trainings must be facilitated and encouraged for teachers and other caregivers especially in those entities that deal with children.
Meanwhile, schools and other institutions that deal with children need to conduct regular background checks on people they hire and institutionalize child protection programs in their activities. Across all institutions of learning, it is time to develop and enforce child protection policies of which parents, teachers and students are fully aware.
It is time, too, to lift the lid on rape and child sexual abuse. We must talk about it often and openly. It must be preached in churches and mosques, in homes and on the radios and televisions. Our communities need to become so enlightened and aware about how to protect their children from situations of abuse, how to spot signs of abuse, and ways to safeguard their children.
To ask sexually abused children to “move on”, as the government appears to be suggesting that they do, is to bury them, even while they live, under the rubble of incurable physical hurt and mental anguish.
No Liberian ought to ask the soul of Hawa to rest in peace, or the minds of all abused persons to rest healthily, while we overlook the rape and sexual abuse of another child. Hawa’s young soul ought to rest only with our restless actions to protect all children from rape and sexual violence. Hawa’s death, and the rape of five children every day, cannot be a reality with which we ever rest.
It is time to respond.