International Rescue Committee (IRC)

In Liberia, taking the problem of domestic violence to the president

Six out of every 10 women who seek assistance from the International Rescue Committee in West Africa do so because of domestic violence. Journalist and IRC Overseer Susan Dentzer is there as a member of an IRC commission that is working to raise awareness of this terrible problem and explore possible solutions.

 
“Thank you for enhancing our consciousness.” 
 
These words, spoken by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, rang in our ears as we left the meeting with the president on Tuesday, March 13.  For nearly an hour, our Commission on Domestic Violence had consulted with Sirleaf in her offices in Monrovia, reporting on what we had learned about domestic violence in her country and seeking a common understanding on the need for action. Underscoring the weight of the discussion, also present at the meeting were Johnson Sirleaf’s ministers of justice and gender and development, the Honorable Christiana Tah and the Honorable Julia Duncan Cassell. 
 
As commission members, we made our case that enacting legislation to criminalize domestic violence, prosecute its perpetrators and protect victims was at the top of the list of needed interventions.  We came away with the strong impression that she agreed.  
 
Sirleaf, of all people, hardly needed her consciousness enhanced by our small group, who were for the most part newcomers to her country.  Johnson Sirleaf herself is the survivor of an abusive first marriage that ended long ago.  She had clearly triumphed over that experience in spectacular fashion, becoming her nation’s first female president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner
 
What’s more, Johnson Sirleaf, who was recently reelected to her second six-year term as president, had demonstrated in her first term just how serious she was about ending violence against women.  She worked with the Liberian legislature to launch a 2006 law criminalizing rape, and also launched a National Action Plan on Gender Based Violence -- strategies to strengthen the nation’s ability to prevent or respond to violence against women, including through the health sector and the legal system. 
 
But as we shared with the president some of the pain we had heard in the voices of Liberia’s domestic violence victims, she listened intently, her face a study in concern.   She clearly absorbed the commission’s message that, of all forms of violence against women, the widespread domestic violence that her fellow citizens experienced at the hands of intimate partners warranted specialized concern. 
 
Accompanying the commission members to the meeting with Johnson Sirleaf were Heidi Lehmann, director of the IRC Women’s Protection and Empowerment Technical Team, and Gertrude Garway, a Women’s Protection and Empowerment coordinator for the IRC in Liberia.   A fellow Liberian, Garway recounted the story of a woman we had met the previous day – two of whose fingers had been chopped off by a boyfriend.  Although the woman had reported the crime to the police on three occasions, the man had never been prosecuted. 
 
The president was visibly disturbed.   She turned to her minister of justice, who was seated nearby, and directed her to obtain further details and follow up on the case. 
 
Commission member and IRC president George Rupp relayed the message that had come through loud and clear from the domestic violence survivors we’d spoken with:  Enact a law to criminalize domestic violence, prosecute perpetrators and protect women from being abandoned or stripped of property by them in retaliation. 
 
President Johnson Sirleaf pointed out that even though the rape law was on the books, only a relative handful of rape cases had been prosecuted.    Careful and thorough implementation of any new law would be the key, she said. 
 
Rupp and other commissioners agreed, but noted that survivors had stressed the important symbolic weight of declaring domestic violence a crime, thus making it less likely that police officers would dismiss their complaints. 
 
Commission member Pamela Shifman, director of initiatives for girls and women at the NoVo Foundation, recounted how, in the 1990s, she had helped to draft language addressing domestic violence in South Africa while serving as a legal advisor to the African National Congress.  She told Johnson Sirleaf that the subsequent enactment of the law was important because the statute created a legal framework for responding to domestic violence; mobilized communities to recognize the urgency of keeping women and children safe in their homes; and ultimately led to the successful prosecution of thousands of cases. 
 
The president said that a new legal framework for domestic violence in Liberia warranted further consideration, along with other approaches to the problem of domestic violence, such as prevention. 
 
 

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the act of Gender Based

the act of Gender Based Violence continue to be widespread worldwide,particularly against women and girls.

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