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Liberian women unite against sexual violence

PALALA, Jan 11 – Women in this central Liberian village, who suffered at the hands of rebels during a 14-year civil war, want to stop violence against their sex and restore peace to their traumatised towns.

Famah Kowh, her wrinkled face showing all her 60 years, vividly recalls Liberia’s 1989-2003 wartime and, living near Gbarnga, the stronghold of rebels led by ex-warlord and indicted war criminal Charles Taylor.

"We were women representing tradition and custom, uniting the community, therefore the rebels sought to humiliate us, to destroy us, and we lost everything in the war," Kowh says.

"Some of us got killed, some witnessed the killing of a brother, a husband or a child, some were raped," she recounts during a meeting of women in Palala.

The village women want to bring peace of mind "between husband and wife, and in the community as a whole, to help people to lead a normal life," says 54-year-old Abango Galakeh.

The scale of the violence against women during the war years was massive, with an estimated three-quarters of Liberian women victims of rape — like women in other conflict-torn countries where rape is a weapon of war.

"The most important problem after the war was the child soldiers and the ex-fighters who, even since the end of the war in 2003, continued being violent in particular towards women, to take drugs like marijuana and cocaine, to beat people up, to rape," says Kowh.

"Some of them were our own children and they did not seem to realise that the war was over."
The number of reported rapes in this west African nation has increased in recent years, from 351 cases in 2006 to 425 in 2007. Aid organisations claim those statistics underestimate the violence against women as most rape victims are afraid of reprisals or being stigmatised.

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Local officials agree rape is all too common.

"Women are considered as objects by most men in this country, and this is a tendency which is more frequent than before the war which has transformed rape into an daily event," says community worker Joseph Tennie.

"The social damages provoked by rape are greater because the victims tend to keep quiet about it," he adds.

— ‘If a woman is raped, she is laughed at’ —

The women of Palala say they can quickly spot a rape victim.
"She often has very low morale, is very depressed with suicidal tendencies and violent fears," says Lorpa Abahlawo, 50.

"We go and see her and try to talk her into going to the authorities as well as talking to her family so she won’t be stigmatised," she says.

In village life, she adds, "if a woman is raped, she is automatically laughed at, humiliated in public and she does not dare go out anymore."

The Liberian women against violence reach out to a rape victim "to help her regain confidence, and we refer her to a clinic where she can be taken care of both physically and psychologically," explains Rebecca Abanjah, 45.

The women also address their concerns directly to men, says another member of the group, Victoria Abasah, 49, trying to get across the message that the war is over and the violence should stop — which it has not.

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"It is obvious because of the number of cases of women beaten up at home by their husband, of the numerous women treated as slaves like during the war and because of the high level of rape," she says.

Liberia has been struggling to emerge from the vicious legacy of the civil war years. In January 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office as president, the first democratically elected female head of state in Africa.

Taylor, the country’s former president and warlord forced into exile in 1997, is now on trial before an international tribunal sitting in The Hague accused of war crimes for controlling rebel forces in neighbouring Sierra Leone’s 10 years of civil conflict.

The charges, which Taylor denies, include killing, mutilation and rape.

The women of Liberia give witness to the same tactics during their homeland’s civil war, and it is that legacy of violence which the village women want their country to overcome.

In the words of the Palala group’s elder stateswoman, Kowh: "The people have to realise that a society that abuses its women is sick deep down, because women symbolise life and transition to future generations."


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