The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 12-year-old rape victim was detained and allowed to die on the way to a Liberian hospital. Here’s why.

Broken medical and governmental institutions in Liberia contributed to her death.

The Women in Peacebuilding Network’s peace hut in Totota, Liberia, where survivors can seek support from a female community leader. (Photo by Michelle Ben-David)

A 12-year-old girl was raped in Liberia last month by an intoxicated man who neighbors say had committed similar crimes as a combatant during the last civil war. According to Liberian newspapers, the girl was refused admission to two nearby health centers because she was bleeding profusely and local staff feared she had Ebola. Her family then tried to drive her to the capital to JFK Memorial Hospital, a major facility equipped to admit complex cases. But by then, it was getting dark. The family was stopped at a police checkpoint because it was after curfew. They were detained for several hours. The child died there, roadside, in a red pickup truck.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has ordered a full investigation into the state failure to respond to the girl’s emergency. Why was she unable to get care at multiple clinics, including one that has a gender violence ward? Why did police detain her instead of taking her to the hospital and arresting her attacker?

As director of the Sexual Violence Program at the Human Rights Center, University of California, Berkeley, I’ve interviewed dozens of Liberian nurses, police officers, lawyers, judges and community leaders about the challenges in responding to sexual violence during Liberia’s armed conflict — many of which persist today and contributed to this girl’s senseless death.

First, there has been no attempt to prosecute former combatants for crimes committed during the civil conflicts in the Liberian courts. This impunity stretches from the highest levels of government, where Nimba County senator Prince Johnson is widely believed to have ordered mass atrocities, to small-time thugs like the former combatant who raped this 12-year-old child last month. If the big fish have not been caught, the little fish don’t fear the net.

Second, neither the Liberian state nor local civil society has been able to adequately address the consequences of sexual violence that occurred during the war. Survivors have never received sufficient care or seen reparations. Perpetrators have never been punished or rehabilitated. Several nurses and community leaders we interviewed noted that sexual violence survivors hold onto their suffering, and perpetrators often struggle with substance abuse, continuing to hurt those more destitute or powerless than themselves.  One lawyer rued the silence that followed crimes of rape in particular. She said, “Those acts have just been buried alive.”

Third, post-conflict Liberia is a paradox of incredibly promising institutions set in a broken system. The country boasts a rare set of specialized units tasked specifically with responding to crimes of sexual violence. A major hospital has a gender violence clinic. There are specialized police and prosecution units exclusively focused on collecting and presenting evidence of sexual and gender-based crimes. There is even a criminal court division that hears only these offenses. However, without sustained training and resources, even these specialized units cannot hold perpetrators to account. And if a sexual crime occurs beyond the reach of specialized police, it’s unclear how well the regular police will respond.

Johnson Sirleaf has voiced grave concern about the fate of this young girl, who was first raped by a former combatant then allowed to die by her state. However, the president must work at micro and macro levels to respond, since this case invokes issues even larger than one rape survivor who died a likely preventable death.

The president must first prove that she and the institutions under her take sexual violence seriously — her government should ensure that they are sufficiently resourced and trained. There is no use in developing specialized units if they cannot do their jobs, or if their existence enables other police officers or health-care workers to abdicate responsibility for caring for sexual violence survivors. All police officers and health-care workers should have basic competence to recognize and respond to these cases.

Further, once stabilized after the Ebola crisis, the government and international donors should invest in mental health support for survivors of wartime violence, including rape. Programs might also rehabilitate certain perpetrators whose threatening behavior or violence may be tied to substance abuse or treatable mental health conditions.

Finally, since the International Criminal Court has limited ability to address Liberia’s civil conflicts and bringing these cases overseas is extremely difficult, domestic legislation should be enacted to enable the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia’s own courts.

For many reasons, the rape that left a 12-year old girl bleeding to death in a pickup truck must be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of Liberian law. There is even more at stake than justice for the girl’s family. The Liberian government must prove its willingness to address crimes committed in the past, lest they are repeated in the present and future.