International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Working to make domestic violence a crime in Liberia

Journalist and International Rescue Committee (IRC) Overseer Susan Dentzer is visiting Liberia and Sierra Leone this week as a member of the IRC Commission on Domestic Violence.  Dentzer is the editor-in-chief of Health Affairs and an on-air health policy analyst for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. 

MONROVIA, Liberia - March 12, 2012  The members of the IRC Commission on Domestic Violence spent our first morning in Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia, listening to women’s harrowing stories of the abuses they had suffered at the hands of their husbands and boyfriends.  Many of these women are part of IRC-supported Women’s Action Groups that are working to raise awareness of the violence and the need to reverse it.
This afternoon we called on the newly appointed Liberian minister of gender and development, the Honorable Julia Duncan Cassell.  We told her that the women we’d spoken to had been unanimous in their belief that was most needed was a new national law that would criminalize domestic violence and spell out sanctions, including imprisonment.   At present, there is no law in Liberia that explicitly forbids domestic violence or that prescribes any punishment for perpetrators.  That gap stands in contrast to the national law against rape, which was enacted not long after President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected, following Liberia’s devastating 14-year civil war and widespread use of rape as weapon in wartime. 
“We’ve made some strides but we have more to do,” the minister agreed.  She noted that President Johnson Sirleaf’s government was working on a framework for new legislation, and would soon begin work on educating people over the need for such a law.   She noted that passing the earlier anti-rape legislation had required intensive work with forces that initially opposed it, including the national bar association. 
We will have to educate people that this is about men and women working together as partners,” she said. “Women don’t have the right to beat on men and men don’t have the right to beat on women.   We are trying to educate both that we need to work together.” 
From a broader societal perspective, solutions will be multifactorial, many of those the commission spoke with agreed.  These will include empowering women economically, including by training them to operate their own small businesses, as the IRC is doing in a number of programs worldwide. 
The women we met with asked us to carry their important message to President Johnson Sirleaf (known throughout Liberia by her first name, Ellen), who we are scheduled to see tomorrow -- and to the rest of the world. 
“We beg that you add our voices to yours, and urge that the domestic violence bill be passed,” said Lucy Shannon, a member of the West Point Women’s Action Group. 
When Sirleaf first became president, she and others noted, proposed rape legislation became law.  “So we put her back in office so she could pass our law [on domestic violence].”  Shannon added, “We want to see her and talk with her directly, but please carry her this message:  We don’t want women to be a football, or a drum to be beaten on by men.”

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