Rape Counseling for an Entire Nation

Sexual violence became a way of life in Liberia during its civil wars, with everyone -- women, men, babies -- victimized. Led by a feminist president, the country begins the healing process.

Teresa Wiltz
Teresa Wiltz

MONROVIA, Liberia — We’re in the upper edges of Liberia, neighboring the border of Guinea, enjoying an alfresco dinner with the crew from the local radio station, swatting at mosquitoes, swigging down Liberian beer to mute the heat of that divinely delicious red-pepper sauce. We’re talking about land disputes, the havoc wreaked by two civil wars and how hard it is to do community radio with an all-volunteer staff, when a young man leans in to ask me a question. 

“Tell me,” he says. “Is there rape in the United States?”

“Of course,” I tell him, stammering a bit in surprise.

The young man looks at me dubiously as I talk about date rape, incest and child abuse. “Rape is a very big problem here in Liberia,” he tells me.

He’s right, of course. It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the problem in Liberia. Here, rape became a tool of war (just as it did in Bosnia, the Congo and Sri Lanka — and as it has been as long as there has been war in the world). Estimates vary widely, but between 60 percent and 90 percent of the female population — women, girls, babies — was raped at some point between 1989 and 2003, the 14-year stretch of Liberia’s brutal civil war. Men and boys were, too. Gang rapes were common. They still are.

The Scars of a Nation

Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves, is a nation with a collective case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Rape remains a part of the national psyche, perhaps because there were so many, perhaps because it was often a public affair. Just ask Mark Delighted Dowee, a one-time general in Charles Taylor’s army, who now works as a rice farmer alongside other ex-combatants.

“They raped my mother in front of me,” Dowee says of rebel forces in his village, “and then they carried my sister away. I never saw her again. I said to myself, ‘I have to defend my family.’ “

Of his own complicity in the war, Dowee has this to say: “For me, I did not kill anybody. I killed my enemies.”

Today, one-time enemies live side by side. This, of course, has posed its own set of problems: Dowee says, “We had to develop love for each other.” But putting away the guns was the easy part. Getting over the war’s legacy of sexual violence has proved much more difficult. Seven years after the last shots were fired, rape still permeates Liberia. 

For most Americans who even bother to pay attention to the affairs of this West African nation, Liberia’s rape statistics warrant little more than some head shaking and tsk-tsking. But this country’s problems have far-reaching effects: Two years ago, an 8-year-old girl from a Liberian family was gang-raped in Arizona.