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Last Updated: Friday, 20 January 2006, 19:01 GMT
Liberian leader breaks rape taboo
By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Monrovia

Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, came to power on a huge surge of support from women voters, hopeful that a woman leader would right some of the wrongs done to them during 14 years of civil war.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the ceremony
The new president has vowed to tackle rape using tough new laws

One of her first pledges was to do something about the scourge of rape, using new legislation that came into force the day after her inauguration.

Rape is not a word you often hear in polite society. It is certainly not something that presidents talk about in their inaugural address.

But after being sworn in on Monday, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf stood up and said something that galvanised her audience.

"I know of the struggle because I have been a part of it," she said.

"I recall the inhumanity of confinement, the terror of attempted rape."

Living in fear

Sister Barbara Brilliant, a nun and midwife who has lived in Liberia for nearly 30 years - including right through the war - was in the audience and heard the taboo being broken.

They are so badly damaged that most times, they will not even have children
Grace Boiwu
Anti-rape campaigner

"I felt, thank God. It's about time. Even here, we had a situation. We had soldiers who got over the fence," she said.

"The first thing we did was shut off the light, we lay on the floor and we did not dare to breathe. And all we were thinking of was, 'We don't want to be raped.' This is us, at our age!"

The war in Liberia was very brutal. Many of the rapes were carried out with extreme physical violence.

Working alongside Sister Barbara on issues of violence against women is a group led by Grace Boiwu.

"If you have a man of the age of 50, 40, wanting to rape a girl of 13, 10, they have to be violent," Ms Boiwu said.

"If you have two or three men raping, they will have to be violent, or you have soldiers who can rape a group of young girls," she added.

"They are so badly damaged that most times, they will not even have children. There was one at the clinic, I think up till now, she's not even walking because of that."

Family ties broken

What has finally made this a public issue is the fact that the fighting is over, but the rape has not stopped.

Liberians endured 14 years of a brutal civil war

Liberians like Grace Boiwu are being forced to confront the fact that the war may have done permanent damage to their society.

"Men were forced to have intercourse with their daughters in front of the soldiers," Ms Boiwu said.

"The soldiers forced brother and sister or son and mother to have sex in front of the husband ... So it broke the family ties."

A public information campaign on Liberian radio reassures women that "rape is a wicked thing that the law can take care of".

But there is severe doubt about whether the law can handle rape cases in Liberia.

Until very recently, rape was a bailable offence. That meant that even if a suspect was arrested, he could be out of jail and back home the next day - and in a position to intimidate anyone who might give evidence against him.

Life imprisonment

Lois Bruthus, the president of the Liberian Association of Women Lawyers, says that in the past, it was almost impossible to bring a successful prosecution.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf with women supporters
My administration shall endeavour to give Liberian women prominence
President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

"Under the old law, it was extremely difficult," Ms Bruthus said.

"We have prosecuted a single case since 1999. And we prosecuted that one case because during that time, it was a female judge that was sitting on the case."

But the campaigning has paid off. In December, a new and much tougher rape law was passed and it came into force the day after Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration.

The law widens the definition of rape to cover penetration with any foreign object, and not just the penis.

Also, when a victim is under the age of 18, she is automatically deemed not to have given consent.

The law also covers gang rape, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment.

'Right step'

Now all that needs to be done is to persuade the victims to come forward.

Guide to Liberia and its recent turbulent history

The campaigners have the new president's assurance that if victims can be persuaded to speak out, then the rapists will be prosecuted.

"My administration shall endeavour to give Liberian women prominence," Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf said.

"We will enforce without fear of favour the laws against rape recently passed by the national transitional legislation."

Those words were music to the ears of campaigners like Lois Bruthus, Sister Barbara and Grace Boiwu.

"In fact, I danced when I heard her saying it because I think it's about time that we do something," Ms Boiwu said.

"It's a right step in the right direction and at the right time."

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