Liberian Courts Battle Rape Scourge

The Associated Press
Monday, August 6, 2007; 6:24 PM

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Under an old foam mattress in one of this city's slums, Niome David keeps a dark memento _ the underwear her 9-year-old daughter was wearing the night she was raped.

The mother refuses to wash out the blood stain, keeping it as proof of the brutality her child endured. In a nation inured to violence, the fact that she knew to preserve evidence is also, somehow, a sign of hope.

After 14 years of civil war, many here have become accustomed to covering up their horrors in shallow graves _ including David, whose husband was executed during the war and whom she buried on a roadside. But a 1 1/2-year-old law is encouraging women to turn to the courts, which can lock convicted rapists away for life.

When her daughter came home bleeding, David _ an illiterate woman who sells rice from a platter on her head _ knew to undress her, but not to wash her. The blood had soaked through the child's pink dress.

A radio and billboard campaign instructs women to seek immediate medical care for rape and so David held her daughter and wept, then folded her clothes into a plastic bag and took her to the capital's main rape clinic.

Liberia doesn't have the technology to store semen samples, so a nurse recorded each laceration on paper. That and the bloodied clothes helped persuade a jury this year to convict Musa Solomon Fallah, a 43-year-old car mechanic, who was sentenced to life in prison. "That man spoil my daughter," said David. "I hope he dies in jail."

Convicted April 11, Fallah is one of the first rapists to receive the maximum punishment under the country's revised penal code, a turning point in what people here are calling a war on rape. The new law, passed Dec. 29, 2005 and considered one of the toughest in the region, makes gang and statutory rape unbailable offenses. Before, even a man who raped a toddler could bail himself out for as little as $25 and stood a good chance of eventually walking free.

Across Africa, from Sierra Leone to Sudan, rape has been a weapon of war used by militiamen, rebels and government armies. In many places, the problem has been acknowledged and even highlighted by humanitarian agencies and rights groups, but in most cases, little has been done to stop it.

The U.N. says the level of sexual violence in Congo and Burundi is "appalling," but lack of education, resources and honest justice systems made such crimes hard to curb.

Liberia stands in contrast. It has Africa's only elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has sought to dispel the stigma associated with sexual assault by publicly acknowledging that she was herself the victim of attempted rape during the war.

Rape was so prevalent during the civil war that many have come to see it as a petty offense compared with other atrocities common during the conflict, such as cutting off the genitals of a man or carving out his heart and eating it.

While a 4-year-old peace has brought an end to such crimes, government officials say rape remains rampant _ especially of children, who are easier targets for men deprived of their weapons. Of the 658 rape victims treated since the end of the war at the capital's main rape clinic, more than half were under 12 and 85 percent were under 18, according to Medecins sans Frontieres, which runs the hospital. Several babies have been treated for rape.

Despite these figures and the line of women that forms outside the rape clinic every morning, only five convicted rapists are serving sentences in Monrovia's central prison.

Part of the problem is the tattered justice system. Liberia has just 22 judges, compared with hundreds in any sizable U.S. city, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. Because Liberia's penal code has been out of print since the 1950s, judges rely on blurred photocopies of the statutes, he said.

Liberia still has far to go, said Vabah Gayflor, the minister of gender and development. She said a whole mentality needs to change, pointing to newspaper editorials that say women who wear revealing clothes are to blame if they are raped.

"A 3-month-old baby was gang-raped. She was wearing diapers. Are you telling me she was indecently dressed?" asked Gayflor.

Billboards throughout the capital now warn that rape is illegal by showing two stick figures, one forcing itself on the other _ the scene crossed out by a large X.

When Liberia, a nation of 3 million, began its descent into civil war in 1989, rape quickly became a weapon. Before killing villagers, the rebels gang-raped girls and took them as "wives" to service multiple commanders. Thousands of rapes went unprosecuted.

Some women may now be learning to trust the courts once more.

In the thick jungle a 3 1/2-hour drive from the capital, in a village that can only be reached by foot, a 23-year-old woman also knew to hold on to proof.

Bendu Johnson was walking home along the knotted footpaths after a day selling bananas in the market, when a man grabbed her. He held a machete to her throat and raped her in the undergrowth until she bled.

Afterward, Johnson grabbed his knife and ran. It took her an hour to reach a police station, where she handed over the knife and filed a report, and another three hours to get to the Monrovia clinic by bus.

Her torn underwear, the knife and the clinic's report jailed Varney Garganma, 34, for life, the first rapist to be sentenced in rural Liberia. Garganma, himself an ex-child soldier, is suspected of having raped at least 150 women in the jungle. When he was caught, a crowd of women tried to stone him.

"I had to tell them that we don't need jungle justice anymore," District Superintendent Mohamed Massaley said. "Now our courts can do the job."

© 2007 The Associated Press