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.

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"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. 

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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.

Or, as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — herself the survivor of sexual violence — puts it, "It stems from the victimization of women during the many years of conflict, because rape was not part of any historical black male society, but women were used as sex slaves [during the Liberian civil wars], and so that has now entered into part of the value system. 

"[There] has to be the education to try to change that culture and that violence that relegates women to just being assets for sex."

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A Place for Healing

This is what it looks like when a war-weary nation tries to change that culture.

At a safe house for sex-abuse victims right outside Monrovia, blue, pink, yellow, green and orange balloons hang from the low ceilings. The generator hums along; the overriding vibe here is one of quiet good cheer. Over one office door hangs a sign, "Counseling." Outside, children play. They are the clinic's patrons.

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The clinic is part of THINKLiberia, a faith-based Liberian nongovernmental organization headed up by Rosanna Schaack, a Liberian nurse who was adopted by European missionaries as a child. "THINK" — Liberians are fond of acronyms — stands for "Touching Humanity in Need of Kindness."

For many of the women and girls who come here, kindness has been in short supply in their lives. About 65 people flock to the safe house each month, victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse. They are brought in mostly by the police, thanks to a new sex-crimes unit set up by Liberia's minister of justice. The victims range from age 2 through adulthood, but most are 13 to 17 years old. This is a big improvement, Shaack says; the majority of them used to be between 6 and 12.

Why are the victims so young?

"We don't know that," says Shaack, a small, sweet-faced woman who speaks with a lilt. "Some people are just sick. Some do it because they think it will bring them luck."

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Shaack says that she has a hard time convincing the victims to press charges. "They won't come to court. Culturally, they don't want to send someone to jail. But we tell them that [rape] is a crime against the state." Compounding their reluctance is the fact that most times, the perpetrator is someone the victim knows: a neighbor, a stepfather, an uncle. "Most of the parents blame the survivor," Shaack says. "They don't know the perpetrator is to blame."

Such was the case with 14-year-old Kebbeh Famdfie, who'd been trying to tell her mother for years that her father was raping her. The abuse started when she was 10 and went on for four long years, but her mother refused to listen — or to help.

Never mind that her father had threatened to kill her if she told anyone; never mind that her mother refused to hear her out. Kebbeh kept talking about what was happening, until someone — two someones, her uncle and her grandmother — listened, and they got angry, too. Now her father is in jail awaiting a court hearing, and she is living at the clinic, far from her mother, with whom she no longer speaks.

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"I want to be a lawyer, a female lawyer," Kebbeh says, one who puts rapists in prison. "Because of what my father did to me."

Modernity Is Still Fighting Tradition

Willie L. Tokpa is strutting around the offices of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Nimba County, deep in Liberia's interior. It's hard not to look at him: He's got close-cropped hair, smooth, deeply brown skin bordering on black, and he's sporting a leopard-print cap festooned with two cowrie shells, a long brocade tunic, and black-and-white pin-striped pants. He's handsome, yes, and he's got attitude to spare. A member of the Mano tribe, Tokpa is here representing as "the chief of chiefs." "There are so many powerful chiefs," he says, "but I am the One."

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He's here, ostensibly, to talk about land disputes in Nimba County — postwar, there's a lot of confusion about who owns what — but today he has other things on his mind. Such as how those "human rights" people, or NGO workers, are screwing things up for Africans, interfering in traditional ways. "It's confusing us in Liberia, very confusing."

Of particular concern to Tokpa: the modern woman of Liberia. He paces around the room, miming the differences between the traditional woman versus today's woman. This one walks, head down, speaks in a low voice, wears long skirts. That one — he stands upright, folding his arms belligerently, thrusting out his butt — she talks back and wears short skirts. And that, he says, is why these women are raped: "Some men get hard," he says. "They see their butts shaking, woo-woo-woo!" Rape can't be helped.

"So what are we to make of the 1-year-olds here that are raped?" I ask him. "Are they dressed too provocatively as well?"

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"That to me is a wickedness," he says. "Taking a baby and making it like that's your wife is a sickness. You have to pay the penalty. You be in jail and you die. That's the only way it will get better."

Some 250,000 died in the war — wars — here, widely regarded as one of Africa's bloodiest. More than 1 million were displaced. Those who could flee fled. Those who couldn't stayed and suffered. Families were broken.

Soldiers forced men to rape their daughters in front of others. Mothers were forced to have sex with their sons; sisters, with their brothers. The war made women widows and children orphans. Left to fend for themselves, young girls became vulnerable to sex trafficking and rape. Where there were once stable families, there are now young single moms raising children alone.

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Some of them, like Hannah Farr, a 27-year-old student at Cuttington University in Bong County, are raising children who are the result of rape. "He's 7," Farr says of her son, adding as an afterthought, "It was during the war."

How do you recover from war and the destruction that it creates?

"When we advocated for peace," says Lindorah Howard-Diawara, national network coordinator of Women in Peacebuilding (WIPNET) of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, "we just wanted the guns to be silenced. We thought that we'd go back to a normal life. That wasn't the case."

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Instead, she says, rape increased. It became a part of the national DNA, an irony in a country that in 2005 elected the first woman president on the continent. And that is the dichotomy here. Everywhere you go, it seems that the people of Liberia, men especially, have been sensitized to the issue of rape. (Tokpa is the notable exception to what I encountered.)

Have the Lessons Been Learned?

As with just about every war-torn country, when the government could not help its citizenry, the NGOs swept in to fill the void, educating, counseling, mediating. And listening to young men like my dinner companion in Nimba, I can't help thinking that sometimes, they're just parroting lessons that they've learned from the NGOs.

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Everywhere, there are billboards reminding Liberians that rape is a crime, that women are to be respected. Community radio stations, Liberia's most prominent form of media, broadcast public information campaigns against rape.

And it is indeed now considered a serious crime here; those charged with the crime are no longer granted bail. The definition of rape has been expanded to include penetration by any means. Gang rape now brings with it a life sentence upon conviction. But the problem persists.

"We're torn with, what else can we do, given the fact that we're committed to the promotion and respect of human rights," President Sirleaf says. For example, the fact that someone who's been charged with rape cannot get bail is being challenged by legal scholars. Given that, she says, "How do we go after the aggressor without violating their rights?"

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The solution, as Sirleaf sees it: Increase education; reduce poverty. Get the girls into the schools and out of the streets. Educate the society that girls are to be treasured. Prosecute the offenders.

"If a lady feels she has gotten some justice," says Howard-Diwara, the peace activist, "it can help her heal mentally."

Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior editor. She traveled to Liberia on a Gatekeeper Editors trip organized by the International Reporting Project. Follow her on Twitter.