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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
West Point - Ann Jones in Liberia
January 17, 2008
By The IRC
|The West Point Women's Action Group leads a campaign to clean up the main street. Photo: Kulah Barbor|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with women's advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa. If you're just joining us, you can read her first series of posts from Cote d'Ivoire at theIRC.org/16daysThe story continues in Liberia, where Ann is posting updates and new photos on Mondays and Thursdays.
I go every day with Marian Rogers, our local coordinator, and other IRC social workers to the home community of one of our photographers. I join the Women’s Action Group to listen and learn. Then I take a long walk with the photographer, taking pictures. Women from the action group come along, coaching their photographer, making sure she sees what they see.
One of my first stops is West Point, the poorest, most densely populated community in the capital: a garbage strewn, fly infested warren of mud and zinc hovels squeezed between beaches where a land spit slides into the sea. West Point’s location is so idyllic it might have been Malibu. But it isn’t.
The Women’s Action Group meets in the town “justice” hall. Up front near the door a clerk takes down the legal complaints of people who drift in off the street, while in the back of the room I jot in my notebook the concerns of thirty women.
Women smoke fish on the West Point waterfront. Photo: Kulah Barbor“Rape is rampant,” says the first woman to speak. “It goes on every day. Young girls be raped. Children be raped.” “Then what happens?” I ask. I know that one of the first acts of President Sirleaf’s government was a strict new rape law. The legislature excluded rape in marriage from the law—sexual service being a wife’s “duty”—but a few men have received long sentences for raping women other than their wives. “Nothing happens,” comes the reply from all sides. “It is shame for the family. The parents, the child, they don’t talk about it.” “They make compromise,” says the chairwoman. “For money. Maybe just small, small. Or maybe if the man is rich, the parents can get two or three thousand Liberian dollars.” (That’s $100 to $150 American.) “So the parents know who the rapist is?” I ask. “Yes, yes.” “But they don’t report him? They don’t go to the police?” “No, no. It is shame for the family.” At last I see: the family is shamed because the rapist is part of the family. An uncle. A brother-in-law. A cousin’s nephew. There are other reasons for not reporting the rapist. Sometimes the family is afraid of him. More often they feel sorry for him. “Maybe he is a student,” one woman says. “If he is reported, his future is damaged.” “What about the future of the girl he raped?” I ask. “Nobody thinks of that,” says an old woman. “Why not?” The old woman looks at me with sad, patient eyes. “Because she be girl.” One woman wants to blame the victims. “Look at the way young girls dress,” she says. “Like they looking to be raped.” Another woman, displaced from the north, says, “Don’t be blaming them. Even Muslim women who go with the whole body wrapped, even they get raped.” The chairwoman says, “Even wives staying in the house can be raped by the husbands.” Another woman says, “My neighbor’s daughter was raped. She is four years old.”
West Point is one of the most violent areas in Monrovia. Girls are not safe. Photo: Kulah BarborWe sit in silence for a while—just sitting with the presence of violence that for these women is as relentless as rain, and as ungovernable. Then they tell me more. About all the men who impregnate girls, by rape or seduction, and then abandon them. About the Fulas who beat their multiple wives every day. About the man who, having paid the bride price, often beats his prospective wife with a canoe paddle in the public street. About men from Guinea who traffic young girls to Monrovia for prostitution. “What can you do about these things?” I ask. They report some rape cases to the police. They bring survivors to talk with IRC social workers who are here in the community every day. They bring the pregnant girls and women who have been abandoned, and they take their cases to the association of women lawyers, seeking support from the fathers. They campaign for government regulation of “video clubs,” private businesses that show x-rated, violent, and pornographic films. The four year old rape victim was attacked by a twelve year old on his way home from a video club, trying to “practice” what he had seen. (In 2005-06, a Medecins Sans Frontieres study found that 85 percent of rape victims were younger than 18; 48 percent were between the ages of 5 and 12.) “Where you find poverty, you find hungry men,” says the old woman. “Where you find hungry men, you find violence.” She is talking about men hungry for riches, hungry for power. “Men who have a little something do violence to the vulnerable to get something more.” Later we walk through the back alleys of West Point. On the sea side at the far edge of the community, lean hard-muscled men are making a fishing boat as their grandfathers did, digging out a massive log for the keel. Along the shore, women tend fires in sooty oil drums overlaid with wire screens. They spread the day’s catch upon the screens and move among the drums, through smoke and scorching heat, to flip small silvery fish as they dry and blacken. These are old arts, but the fish are small now and sparse, the boats small and less tightly made. The broad beach beyond is buried in trash and reeking garbage. As we walk back, women mention things we haven’t seen—government schools, a hospital, a clinic, a playground for children, a women’s center. They do not exist. The women lead me to a very small windowless building. An international NGO promised to build a women’s center but quit after putting up the ground floor and a stairway to the nonexistent second storey. After many months, the Women’s Action Group has scraped together enough money to pay a man to close the stairwell so they can use the ground floor. Watching him work, the chairwoman says, “When we have our meeting place, we can make bread.”