As I prepped to leave for Liberia to join the Nobel Women’s Initiative in their efforts to combat violence against women, I thought I would check on Olivia; a young girl I reported on two years ago when I filed a story for CNN on post conflict rape.
I was looking forward to seeing her 13-year old smiling face, but instead on day two of my visit I went to her grave. A grave which could only be identified by her doctor who took me to the cemetery as the family could not afford a tombstone.
2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee who guided the delegation told me during the trip “You have the age old thing, there is usually no justice for the poor.” This rings true for Olivia. The perpetrator who raped her when she was six was not prosecuted. Since the rape, Olivia spent years in and out of JFK Hospital in Monrovia usually for the maintenance of a Colostomy Bag she had to wear due to the severe tears to her anal and vaginal area after the rape. Just last month she developed an intestinal obstruction. Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah, who recently left JFK hospital, says Olivia’s new caretakers knew surgery would be risky, but if left untreated death was almost certain. Olivia had surgery, it was not successful as shortly after Dr. Jallah says Olivia became septic. She died late December 2012.
“Rape occurs all over the world. But in some countries that have been caught up in violent conflict, rape and sexual violence is shockingly high. So we have to focus on those countries.” – 1976 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland)
I fondly call the delegation made up of four Nobel Laureates, activists, and supporters – “Ladies of Action” as they were tireless in their quest for answers as to why rape is among the highest reported crimes in Liberia with 68 percent being girls age 10 -19 according to a UNMIL report.
A trail of answers were found from women in the Rockhill Community, to Totota, to the city center in Monrovia: stigma, a strained justice system, economic struggles so severe that victims are often left transporting their perpetrators to court because, the Chief Prosecutor Felicia Coleman admits, the country does not have the money for adequate police transport.
It has been a decade since the fighting in Liberia stopped, but the wounds of the 14-year civil war are slow to heal amidst remaining poverty and a legacy of impunity for those who commit crimes. Warlords have not been prosecuted for using rape as a tactic in war and despite a court set up in recent years to prosecute current rapes, only 30 cases have gone to trial since 2009 with just a handful of perpetrators serving prison sentences according to the Chief Prosecutor.
Liz Bernstein, the Executive Director of The Nobel Women’s Initiative, took the delegation’s message to Heads of State at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia asking them to make a stronger commitment to stop rape in conflict and during peace time. She says planned on-on-one meetings with country leaders did not pan out, but they are not discouraged because she said the shared sentiment was, “Indeed we know real change comes from the grassroots, from the movements we saw in Liberia and the women in Sudan, DRC, Zimbabwe, Kenya – not from these halls of power.” This proven philosophy gives me hope. During my time of working on news stories and the documentary Camp72 in Liberia, I have been fortunate enough to get to know some Liberians well. During the war Gladys’ mother was killed by a NPFL rebel and Gladys was later taken as a sex slave by the same rebel, but she walks with strength and has the goal of being a lawyer. Grace who was kept as a slave for most of her life has found laughter and the goal to become a nurse.
As Ernest Hemingway said, “Sometimes we are stronger in the broken places.”
There is immense strength in Liberia and I am hopeful that now that the “Ladies of Action” are watching and working to empower activists making a difference there will be fewer “broken places” and fewer graves like Olivia’s.
(Since leaving JFK, Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah founded Hope For Women International.)