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Liberia Rape Law In the Female-led Government: How Did Liberian Women Benefit?

By P. Nimely-Sie Tuon           


Within days, the presidency of Liberia’s first woman president will officially come to an end, and many are wondering and maybe anxiously waiting as to how observers, particularly historians, will rate the presidency of Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

As compared to her male counterparts, the Sirleaf presidency impacted the lives of Liberian women. The way to realistically measure the Sirleaf presidency’s impact on the women of Liberia is through the area of sexual violence in which women are usually the victims.

To that, I will like to look at the New Rape law of Liberia under the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf presidency, from 2006-2017. According to those who have kept a close eye on the various activities surrounding the Sirleaf presidency, including studies and news reports, they point to many lapses and failures in addressing many of the serious issues facing the country, including rape, throughout the tenure of the Sirleaf-led Unity Party government.

Days immediately after she was declared the winner of the 2005 presidential race, Madam Sirleaf announced that she wouldn’t appoint anyone with serious past human rights record, but continued to do the opposite throughout by appointing officials and those whom she allied herself with, including rapists.

 Liberia is a country still emerging and suffering from the ravages of war. During which rape was used as a weapon against women by members of the various warring factions. When you think about rape, what comes to mind is that it involves two people. However, during the Liberian 14-year violence, a new concept of rape emerged, it is called “gang rape” where several rebels would rape one woman at the same time.

Sometimes gang rape was used as some form of punishment, and at times leaving the woman unconscious or dead. The new Rape Law of Liberia was seen an antidote in curbing the impunity that came along with rape and its related violence inherited from the 14-year senseless bloodshed.

On December 29, 2005, during the time of the Liberian Transitional Government, the Transitional Legislative Assembly passed “An Act to Amend the New Penal Code Chapter 14 Sections 14.70 and 14.71,” which includes provisions for Gang Rape. The act is commonly referred to as the ‘New Liberian Rape Law.’ The amendment included a non-billable provision, meaning a defendant charged with a rape crime under this act is not entitle to bail. That defendant would remain behind bars until their trial, and if convicted, would remain in jail for good, and no right to parole. The act was released to the public by the foreign ministry in 2006 under the Sirleaf-Boakai government. 
Today, despite the toughness of the New Rape Law of Liberia with a woman as president, and other women at the echelon of power, not only that rape crimes from the war remained unpunished, some of those that committed rape during the Sirleaf presidency, also remained unpunished. Many blamed this to the weak and selective approach to enforce all laws of the country. A behavior that is common under the Sirleaf regime.

Those who are carefully following the rape saga in Liberia point to one important reason that makes the Liberian rape law just a paper tiger, despite having powerful women at the echelon of power in Liberia who could’ve used their powers to make a difference.

The reason is that the rape law falls within a category of laws in Liberia which when fully implemented will affect the behaviors of many government officials and those connected to them, thus, as a result, under the Sirleaf presidency, such laws are rarely enforced, or when they are enforced they are applied discriminatorily with poor defendants feeling the impact, while government officials or those connected with them go free. Some of these government officials and the well-connected would paid off the families of rape victims for their silence and make them to publicly state or denied that the rape ever occurred.  

The Sirleaf presidency will also be remembered as a government which dished out excuses not to implement and enforce policies, laws that were meant to do public good, laws and policies that could positively impact the lives of ordinary Liberians. The rape law is said to be no exception. Even though, the law calls for the establishment of a rape court in each of the 15 Liberian counties, throughout the 12-year of the Sirleaf presidency, there exists only one rape court in the entire country, located in Monrovia, the nation’s capital.

The failure to establish rape court in every county was blamed on the lack of money, even though various studies since 2006, have revealed stories of women in the counties who said they have been raped by one or more times in their lives. According to the results of the government own survey in 10 of Liberia’s 15 counties, for the period 2005-2006, 92 percent of the 1,600 women interviewed said they had experienced some form of sexual violence, including rape. 164 rape cases were also reportedly happened within three months during the same period in Lofa County alone.

In another report released by the UN in 2015 alone, there were 803 rape cases reported from across the country. According the UN, “Rape is the second most commonly reported serious crime in Liberia,” at this time.  Many of these cases don’t see the light of day in court. The victims, if lucky, may just receive counseling and some free medical treatment.

Some diehard supporters of the Sirleaf presidency argued that the government is doing all it can to address the issue of rape, and point to what they are describing as the fully functioning rape court in Monrovia, “Criminal Court E,” located in the Temple of Justice. As the only rape court in the country, Criminal Court E is presided over by the only rape court judge in the country, Judge Cieaneh Clinton-Johnson.

Sadly, it has been reported that under her gavel is where the prosecutorial lapses and failures by the Sirleaf government to address the rape issue in the country are mostly revealed. Judge Johnson’s court has been accused of many things including the mysterious disappearances of rape defendants, especially foreign rape defendants.  

These disappearances of defendants occurred after they were arrested and brought before judge Johnson. Many of these disappearing defendants, mostly foreigners, are believed to have bribed their way into thin air. There are cases involving Lebanese and Nigerian nationals who disappeared with no trace after being arrested by police and brought to court before Judge Johnson.

And also, reports pointing to selective enforcement of the rape law by the court that sees the enforcement whenever it happens, is aggressively against ordinary Liberian rape defendants who are put in jail upon their initial arrest and left there without a speedy trial. As compared to the well-connected rape defendants, including government officials, who are let to go free and most of the times don’t ever appear in court.

As a judge in the Montserrado County court, Judge Johnson overseers rape cases in Monrovia and its vicinities. However, some desperate rape victims would travel as far as Bong County, more than one hundred miles to Monrovia, to seek legal assistance in court, compounding the already difficulties facing many rape victims, especially outside of Monrovia.  

While the critics of the Sirleaf regime were expressing all these concerns about the weak approach adopted by the regime as regards to the enforcement of the rape law and the difficulties facing rape victims, then came another setback.

On October 3, 2017, the current Liberian senate at its 60th seating of its current session passed another amendment which could weaken the rape law. In the new amendment brought to the Liberian senate’s attention by Mr. J Milton Teahjay, senator representing Sinoe County, the non-billable clause or provision in current law was removed and replaced by a bailable provision.

Mr. Teahjay, a member of the ruling Unity Party, described the non-bailable clause as “cruel and unusual punishment,” a move that drew some protests from women groups, and is being described as a blow to the rape fight in Liberia. The Liberian Legislature is dubbed ‘a haven for rapists in Liberia’ due to the fact that there are individuals in both houses that are accused rapists from war time, and those who are accused of rape during the present time. In addition, some of these accused rapists are partisans and allies of Liberia’s current woman president. 

Many Liberian human rights activists and other legal practitioners that are following the rape culture in Liberia, are hinting of darker days ahead for Liberian rape victims for the failure of the current female-led government to do enough to aggressively enforce the rape law of Liberia. These activists described the failures by the Sirleaf presidency to seriously address the rape issue as a missed opportunity in curbing the rape epidemic in Liberia.

Many observers believed the Sirleaf government was uniquely positioned to protect rape victims in Liberia more than ever. Some blamed the failure to prosecute rape crimes in the past due to the insensitivity of past male-dominated governments, an insensitivity which found its way into the current wave of violence in Liberia. The present government has women holding high positions in all levels, some at the highest levels in all three branches of the Liberian government. This is why many are lamenting to see the existence of high degree of insensitivity regarding the rape situation under the Sirleaf-led government. 

Besides the current president, Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, being a women, and also a Nobel Prize winner, and many Liberian human rights activists saw the rape issue as an area where her government would really do well. In addition, senator and vice president-elect Jewel Howard Taylor, is a powerful lawmaker whom critics accused of lacking the passion towards women issues.

Then you have the only rape court in the country headed by another woman Judge Cieaneh Clinton-Johnson. Three powerful women with unprecedented powers, together have failed to use their powers to protect the women of Liberia by strengthening their enforcement process against rape. President Sirleaf was the first to open the floodgate towards weakening the fight against rape and other crimes against women when she refused to implement the recommendations contained the final report of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The recommendations from the TRC which have many anti-rape provisions. However, President Sirleaf, who herself was listed in the TRC report as a supporter of violence, and was barred with others from holding political office for 30 years, ditched the report when she announced her intentions to seek a second term.

The prognosis of curbing rape in the Liberian society appears to be bleak as Liberia is poised to have a new government. Among the few issues that appeared on the radar of the just-ended general and presidential campaign, rape was not one of them. When it barely came up at a presidential debate, only two presidential candidates came out to rightly condemn rape in the public.

Two other candidates at the debate failed to publicly condemn rape. The other 18 candidates in the race had no public position on rape, including George Weah, who was declared winner of the presidential election. Weah’s vice president running mate is Jewel Howard Taylor, senator from Bong County. Before becoming senator, Madam Taylor was First Lady of Liberia when her former husband Charles Taylor ruled Liberia and did not display any anti rape-sentiments, especially, at a time when her husband rebels and government security forces were accused of rapes.

With no public positions on rape by the next president and vice president, and their famous campaign pledge to continue where the Sirleaf government left off, there is a strong possibility that the level of insensitivity towards rape that overwhelmed the Sirleaf presidency could be dwarfed by that of the Weah presidency. 

P. Nimely-Sie Tuon is General Coordinator/Liberia Human Rights Campaign. He can be reached at 267-748-4173; email:      


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