Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of a woman or man is illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and rape remained a serious and pervasive problem, especially under COVID-19 enforced lockdowns. The law’s definition of rape does not specifically criminalize spousal rape. Conviction of first-degree rape, defined as rape involving a minor, rape that results in serious injury or disability, or rape committed with the use of a deadly weapon, is punishable by up to life imprisonment. Conviction of second-degree rape, defined as rape committed without the aggravating circumstances enumerated above, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
In September 2020 President Weah issued a proclamation declaring a national emergency on rape after a three-day protest by thousands following the rape of a three-year-old girl by a teenage boy using a razor blade to commit the crime. Under the National Rape Emergency, President Weah declared initial measures that included the appointment of a special prosecutor for rape, the setting up of a National Sex Offender Registry, the establishment of a National Security Taskforce on sexual- and gender-based violence, and the allotment of an initial amount of two million dollars to strengthen the country’s efforts to combat rape and sexual- and gender-based violence. There was, however, little follow-through on these initial proposals and efforts.
On April 12, FrontPage Africa reported that a 49-year-old man from Zota District in Bong County fled after he reportedly raped and impregnated his 14-year-old daughter. The alleged sexual abuse took place from December 2020 to April. It was reported that after sexually abusing her and in a bid to buy her silence, he threatened to kill her if she reported the assaults to anyone. After being discovered, the alleged rapist threatened both the girl and her mother with death if they reported him to police. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.
On June 8, a radio station reported that a 65-year-old man was arrested in Margibi County for allegedly raping a one-month-old baby, leading to the baby’s death. Women in the county campaigned for the death penalty for rapists following the incident.
On August 20, the Liberia National Police arrested and detained the founder and general overseer of Image of Christ Deliverance Philadelphia Central Church in Kakata, Margibi County, Apostle D. Franklin Snorton, for allegedly raping a 21-year-old pregnant woman. According to the victim’s father, his daughter alleged that Snorton demanded sex from her while pointing a knife and threatening to kill her if she resisted him. The alleged perpetrator was arraigned before the Kakata Magisterial Court on August 23.
On December 30, FrontPage Africa reported that a 14-year-old girl in Gbarpolu County died as a result of being raped by a 30-year-old man identified as Saah Sumo on December 22. The victim was first transported to the Mona Clinic, but it lacked the medical supplies to stop the bleeding caused by the assault. She was referred to the Chief Jallah Lone Health Center in Bopolu City, which was several hours away from Kolah Village where she resided. The only one-stop center for rape and other gender-based violence cases and medical center in the area was located in Bopolu, Gbarpolu county’s capital. The local police station was understaffed and lacked the resources to follow up on cases like rape that often occurred in the rural parts of the county.
Minister of Gender, Children, and Social Protection Williametta Piso Saydee-Tarr claimed on a national radio program that sexual and gender-based violence cases decreased between January and June. Women’s rights groups criticized the ministry, noting that the government’s data showed no decrease. Between January and June the Ministry of Justice’s Sexual and Gender-based Violence Unit reported 605 cases, comprising 450 statutory rape cases, 100 rape cases, 55 gang-rape cases, and 10 cases of sodomy.
According to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights’ August Human Rights Situation Report, of the 1,337 inmates at the Monrovia Central Prison, 325 were serving sentences for rape, six for rape and murder, six for rape involving sodomy, and seven for armed robbery and rape. The report noted perpetrators of rape enjoyed widespread impunity, for which it cited bureaucratic obstacles that restricted the number of cases that could be heard in each judicial term and institutional weaknesses by specialized agencies of government tasked with implementing anti-sexual- and gender-based violence policies. The Independent National Commission on Human Rights noted that some perpetrators used COVID-19 restrictions on movement as an opportunity to prey on vulnerable individuals.
An overtaxed justice system, compounded by health restrictions, prevented timely prosecutions, and delays caused many victims to cease cooperating with prosecutors. Victims’ families sometimes requested money from the perpetrators as a form of redress; perpetrators sometimes offered money to prevent matters from going to court. Authorities often dropped cases due to a lack of evidence.
Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem, and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection stated that in 2020, the most recent figures available, 16 percent of reported sexual- and gender-based violence cases were for domestic violence.
The maximum penalty for conviction of domestic violence was six months’ imprisonment, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. The Women and Children Protection Section of the Liberia National Police received reports on cases of domestic violence. Civil society officials suggested that lack of speedy trials led victims to seek redress outside the formal justice system.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): According to the 2019-20 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey (LDHS), the most recent available, 38 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C, with higher prevalence in the country’s northern regions. Although the government routinely decried FGM/C in discussions of violence against women, there were no laws criminalizing it. Political resistance to passing legislation criminalizing FGM/C continued because of the public sensitivity of the topic and its association with particular tribes and secret societies in populous counties. The Sande (for females) and Poro (for males) societies, often referred to as “secret societies,” combined traditional religious and cultural practices and engaged in FGM/C as part of their indoctrination ceremonies.
In 2018 then president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to prohibit FGM/C of all persons younger than age 18 and of persons older than 18 without their consent, but the order lapsed in early 2019 with no extension announced. Several human rights organizations reported bush school (secret society) activities and FGM/C continued, despite the ban. NGO representatives reported there was little political will within the legislature to take on the issue of FGM/C; however, a high-level government official suggested otherwise.
On February 5, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, Chief Zanzan Karwo, the leader of the National Traditional Council, resisted international pressure to abolish FGM/C. He stated his belief that FGM/C prepares young women to become good wives. An Alternate Economic Livelihood program, initiated in 2019 to provide traditional practitioners of FGM/C (“zoes”) alternative economic livelihood activities so that they would not generate income from FGM/C, provided resources and education to former practitioners.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Many observers, including the Independent National Commission on Human Rights, reported an apparent increase in harmful traditional practices during the year, including ritualistic killings, accusations of witchcraft, and trial by ordeal, although comprehensive data to confirm the increase was unavailable. Lot casting, forced ingestion of sassywood (a poisonous concoction made of the bark of the Erythrophleum suaveolens tree), and other traditional forms of trial by ordeal to establish guilt or innocence are outlawed. Reported incidents of trial by ordeal included drinking a concocted liquid, heating a metal object until it glowed red and then applying it to the accused’s skin, beatings, inserting sharp objects into bodily orifices (including the vagina), and forcing women to parade naked around the community.
It remained difficult to obtain convictions for ritualistic killings in the court system because the justice system does not recognize traditional rites as judicable issues. There were credible reports by human rights observers, media, and, in one case of a motorcyclist in Maryland County, even the Liberia National Police, of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victims. There were also multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft.
In July a middle-aged man in Sinoe County was subjected to the traditional “sassywood” practice after he was accused of witchcraft in the deaths of two persons, as well the disappearance of a teenager, in a video widely circulated on social media. In the video two men appeared to assault the man. One of the men stepped on the victim’s leg and another stepped on the victim’s neck. The men beat the victim, who was naked, as a crowd looked on. The attackers repeatedly demanded that the victim confess to his alleged crimes.
On March 25, Moses Mlarmah and unidentified others allegedly killed motorcyclist and student Mordecious Nyemah in a ritualistic killing near Bassiken Town, between Gand Kru and Maryland Counties. Nyemah’s killing led to mass protests that resulted in damage to government property, including arson attacks on the home of Speaker of the House of Representatives Bhofal Chambers, the burning of a police station in the Pleebo Sodoken District, Maryland County, and the escape of 90 inmates from the Harper Central Jail after thousands of protesters vandalized the prison. The violence led President Weah to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew. On April 5, police arrested and sent to the Zwedru Correction Palace several suspects in the killing, many of the escaped prisoners who had been recaptured, as well as some members of the mob who attacked the prison on March 30.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but it remained a significant problem at work and in schools. Government billboards and notices in government offices warned against harassment in the workplace. In his remarks at the September 1 induction ceremony for the new Board of Commissioners of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights, Chairman T. Dempster Brown expressed alarm over the increase in the wave of gender-based violence, rape, and sexual harassment across the country and called for swift action to address these issues.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
While most clinics in the country provided family planning counselling and a mix of planning methods, access to these services at times proved difficult, particularly for women living in rural areas or those with limited financial means.
According to the 2019-20 LDHS, the most recent available, 25 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 reported using a modern form of contraception. Among sexually active unmarried women, 45 percent used modern family planning, while 23 percent of married women used a modern method. Unmet needs for family planning (defined as the percentage of sexually active women who want to postpone their next birth or limit their number of births but did not use a modern method of contraception) increased slightly from 31 percent in 2013 to 33 percent, according to the LDHS. The highest unmet need was among girls and younger women; almost half (47 percent) of women between the ages of 15 and 19 had an unmet need for family planning, primarily for the spacing of children.
The 2019-20 LDHS estimated the maternal mortality rate for the seven-year period before the survey was 742 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Postpartum hemorrhage remained the leading cause of maternal mortality and accounted for approximately 34 percent of maternal deaths. In remote areas infrastructure and adequate facilities in clinics were often lacking, and midwives and health workers sometimes delivered babies without electricity at night. According to the survey, teenage childbearing was 30 percent in 2019-20. FGM/C remained a problem and contributed to maternal morbidity.
Discrimination: By law women may inherit land and property, are entitled to equal pay for equal work, have the right of equal access to education, and may own and manage businesses. By law men retain legal custody of children in divorce cases. In rural areas traditional practice or traditional leaders often did not recognize a woman’s right to inherit land. Programs to educate traditional leaders on women’s rights, especially on land rights, made some progress, but authorities often did not enforce those rights in rural areas.