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Making A Difference

It's more than a decade since Liberia’s brutal civil conflict ended, yet rape, once used as a weapon of war, continues. Save the Children's Gender Ambassador Mariella Frostrup meets children, including 15-year-old Remember, devastated by the country's culture of sexual violence – and the pioneering women fighting to overturn it.

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The Trauma That Remember Can Never Forget

July 6, 2014 - By Mariella Frostrup - Daily Mail Online

Remember and her daughter

In a quiet room off a busy thoroughfare in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, a teenage girl sits twisting her hands in her lap and trying not to catch my eye. Her name is Remember*, she is 15, and the daughter she conceived with her uncle, a man in his late 30s, is almost two. Her story of trust betrayed and sexual abuse is just one of many I am to hear on my trip to Liberia, a country where the effects of the brutal civil war – for which rebel leader and later President Charles Taylor is now serving a 50-year jail sentence for war crimes since his conviction at The Hague in 2012 – continue to be felt.

Around 40,000 women were believed to have been raped during the conflict, which raged between 1989 and 2003. Rape was used as a weapon of war, practised with impunity, creating a culture in which, more than a decade on, brutal sex crimes continue against women and children on a devastating scale.

Mariella Frostrup
Mariella Frostrup, who was recently made Gender Ambassador for Save the Children, on her recent trip to Liberia

Remember’s ordeal began when her uncle came to see her severely disabled mother in their rural village and offered to take her daughter off her hands. He promised to give her a better life and a school education. Instead, he made her a domestic slave and, sending his wife off to visit relatives, moved his terrified niece into his bedroom. This extended period of abuse led to pregnancy and her tormentor demanded she abort the baby. When Remember refused, he tried to starve her to death. His wife (her aunt) was complicit in the torture, enraged that both she and her niece were pregnant at the same time.

It’s ironic to think that Remember is lucky. A young friend reported the ordeal to her mother, who knew someone at a Liberian organisation called THINK (Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness), which is supported by Save the Children. THINK provides safe houses and rehabilitation centres for such traumatised young girls. Remember and her one-month-old baby were rescued and taken to a safe house, before being moved to a rehabilitation centre. Over the past two years, she has slowly revealed what happened, but her uncle remains a free man and a constant threat to her safety.

Remember’s story isn’t unusual, but such is the scale of rapes and the reluctance to discuss them that figures are hard to come by. Between 2011 and 2012, 83 per cent of reported rapes in Liberia were committed against children under 17 years of age. In the rehabilitation centre, 25 girls, some with children of their own, are under the care of centre manager Esther Williams and her team, who help them through a nine-month recovery programme and teach valuable skills that will improve their prospects of finding work.

Remember has learnt to sew but her ambition is not to work as a tailor – she dreams of becoming president, so that ‘men who rape can be killed’. The teenager is facing a dilemma that few adult women could cope with – whether to have her baby adopted and how to rebuild her shattered life. When she talks about her experience she cries gently at the betrayal and loss of innocence that have brought her to this rudimentary building on the outskirts of the city, her second shelter in as many years.

Mariella Frostrup speaking to Famatta
Mariella speaking to Famatta, a survivor of sexual violence
Mariella Frostrup with President Sirleaf and Renee Zellweger
Mariella with Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and GREAT Initiative patron Renée Zellweger in 2011

She’s desperate to return to her ailing mother, and can focus on little else. But could she cope with a disabled mother and a baby? Should she give up her daughter? Would her uncle find her there? These are the issues facing Esther and her staff as they try to assess whether it’s safe for Remember to go home and, if she does, how can she be helped to reintegrate into her community and build relationships to overcome the stigma she may face. There are no easy solutions.

The laws against child sexual violence are stringent in Liberia since the election of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in 2005. She strengthened rape laws and later introduced a special court for crimes of sexual violence. Sadly, progress is painfully slow. The crimes are so endemic that they are hard to police and very few convictions lead to imprisonment.

Rosana Schaack, the executive director of THINK, founded the rehabilitation centre I visited. She feels Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is outnumbered in parliament by men still resistant to change. ‘The gender priority bill is trying to get at least 30 per cent women in parliament, but there were 17 [out of 103 members] in 2005 and only 13 now.’

I meet two more girls at the rehabilitation centre. One of them, Yatta*, just 13, is already a mother. Her baby was conceived when her teacher raped her. Too many of these crimes are committed by adults in positions of trust. The girls know only too well that their futures will have been defined by these violent crimes. Having a baby makes it impossible for them to attend school and therefore unable to improve their circumstances, or secure a future for their children. As Yatta’s baby cries, Esther gently nudges her: ‘She needs her medicine when she coughs.’ She rubs Yatta’s hand. These are, in every sense, babies with babies.

I was last in Liberia three years ago to present Ellen Johnson Sirleaf with the FAS [Femmes Africa Solidarité] Gender Award for her achievement in becoming Africa’s first female leader. Later that same year she was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The African presidents I’ve met on past humanitarian trips were men, surrounded by security contingents in dark suits and darker glasses. In contrast, Sirleaf swept into our meeting room with only one aide at her side, resplendent in colourful traditional dress. Already she seemed to be brushing aside the macho culture she had inherited.

Mariella with Yatta
Mariella with rape victim Yatta, 13, and her baby

It was fitting behaviour for a leader brought to power on a wave of indignant rage by the women of her country, who, sick and tired of the bloodshed of the civil war, got together and created a revolution. The market women, Liberia’s biggest workforce, went on strike and sat in ever increasing numbers in the main square of the capital, robed in white and singing. For months on end they patiently sang and prayed, daily disturbing the dictator Charles Taylor’s equilibrium as he and his gun-slinging thugs sped down the city’s main artery. Finally, they achieved their goal by embarrassing the fighters into peace talks. These uneducated market-stall mothers toppled Taylor and went on to elect Africa’s first female leader. It’s for her part in this powerful revolution without weapons that Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Lovely Sie, a child protection officer for Save the Children working in Monrovia, says the only way to build a better Liberia and a secure one for women is to talk about sexual violence and the damage it inflicts on those affected. ‘Many of the girls and women we see are not even aware they have been abused in the first place. And for those who are, many are locked in by a culture of silence because people are worried they won’t get support from government or their families if they speak up.’

She wants a clear message sent out that those who practise sexual violence will pay. ‘We have the rape law and we need to use it, especially where children are concerned. We are helping the police to follow through investigations. The police tell us they haven’t the resources sometimes and we are helping bridge that gap to ensure that the judicial process is carried out.’

On my second day I travel to an HIV clinic, ten minutes’ drive from the rehabilitation centre in Monrovia. Shalom, as the name suggests, is a quiet peaceful office on a green street where smiling women greet me casually on the veranda. Inside, the team provide support to adults and children living with HIV.

Mariella with Estella Nelson
Mariella with Liberia Women Democracy Radio Station founder Estella Nelson
Mariella at Radio Station
A discussion at Liberia Women Democracy Radio station

There are comfortable chairs and photos of smiling children, one of whom, at 11 months old, is the centre’s youngest client. I meet Irene* and Famatta, both of whom were attacked during the conflict and are now HIV positive. Irene is in her late 50s and in recent years has become an active campaigner, both as a counsellor to fellow HIV sufferers and in the fight against gender-based violence. She was singled out from a group of refugees fleeing the conflict, taken by three rebel soldiers into the bush and repeatedly raped. She begged the men to kill her. She passed out and later woke to find herself in pitch darkness, under a pile of dead bodies. She crawled on her hands and knees for hours until a woman found her and took her in. Irene is fierce, her anger undisguised and I believe she would, as she threatens, castrate the men who abused and infected her then left her for dead. It’s possible that her attackers died during the war, but equally possible that they walk the same streets as their damaged victim – as do many thousands more who have no fear of being brought to account for their crimes.

Her friend Famatta has less fight in her – the ordeal she suffered at the hands of three men and their AK-47 rifles has left her incontinent and unable to walk properly. During her attack her father was forced to watch. To this day, she is unable to face him without being overcome by shame: ‘My father cannot get out of that trauma. I felt so bad, nasty and dirty about myself, some days when I see my father, that trauma comes back.’

This devastated father carried his brutalised 22-year-old daughter for five hours to the nearest medical centre, which was ill-equipped to deal with her internal injuries, and her HIV condition was undiagnosed for a decade. ‘The only thing I think can change men is that whenever a man is caught in such an act they should be killed. Then other men would stop doing it.’ Patty, Famatta’s caseworker, takes Famatta’s hand, quietly reminding her to focus on progress. Patty is a trained counsellor and has been providing psychological support to people like Famatta and Irene since 2008.

As I listen to these women, I’m reduced to tears of pity but also of rage that such terrible crimes remain unpunished. But the women’s determination to see change remains strong.

Mariella at Radio Station
Mariella at Radio Station

Irene, who was raped by rebel soldiers

My favourite radio station on earth, Liberia Women Democracy Radio, hasn’t given up, providing 16 hours a day of Woman’s Hour-style discussion and debate. The radio station is tucked away down a dusty side road not far from the HIV clinic, noticeable only by the comings-and-goings of a stream of glamorous local women. In a country with little infrastructure, this tiny station provides a lifeline to women in remote areas, who sit in tiny villages around battered transistor radios listening to the string of daily shows, explaining their rights, encouraging them to speak out about their experiences and playing great West African music.

Today, its passionate founder, Estella Nelson, is hosting a regular gathering of community leaders. I’m embarrassed by my khaki pants and shirt in the face of their flamboyant Liberian style. Together we negotiate our way through the many layers of gender-based violence: teenage prostitution, a strong law that is not being enforced, story after story of exploitation and abuse. Of the three men present, two are trainee journalists. The third, a policeman, listens bravely as the others vent their anger over corrupt lawmakers who have been complicit in the crimes against women. He admits more training is needed among his colleagues to understand what these women have endured. Tempers today might be raw but ten years ago this conversation could not have taken place at all.

Estella is one of an increasing number of women across Monrovia who is taking action. Along with Rosana of THINK, she travelled to London last month to share experiences at an international conference chaired by Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, aimed at tackling sexual violence across the world. These women believe that change starts with education, which leads to empowerment. Not only does school provide a route out of poverty, it is also a forum in which girls can be educated on how to prevent and report incidents of sexual violence.

The women and girls I spoke to all wanted justice. More poignantly, the younger victims simply wanted to return to their mothers. There lies the sad irony, that very few of these mothers are yet in a position to protect their children in the way they would wish. In an effort to amplify their voices – millions of them across the developing world – I was honoured recently to be made Gender Ambassador for Save the Children. It’s also why I and [dancer/singer] Karen Ruimy founded The GREAT (Gender Rights and Equalities Action Trust) Initiative in 2011 to promote equality for women in Africa. With help, women can and do change the lives of their children. But without the tools to control their own destinies, they continue to be victims.

THINK’s Esther Williams says there is a long way to go to ensure all who need help get it. ‘We do a lot for the girls but still I feel it is not enough. Some of them come to us with nothing and when they leave they have so little. We have such a short amount of time with them and are limited to how many girls we can help. I would like to extend our reach and to be able to tell the girls that men will be punished for the crimes they commit against them and know that it will happen.’

The women who got behind Ellen Johnson Sirleaf were ready for change. Nine years ago, a female president gave them hope, but perhaps now what they have is more important. They are mobilising themselves to be heard.

*Some names have been changed

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