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Taking the stand against rape culture

By Oxfam
Beatrice* at a safe house in Liberia. Photo: Lotte Ærsøe / Oxfam IBIS

In Liberia, Oxfam worked with a teenage rape survivor to bring her assailant to justice and find the peace to move on with her life through a program called FLOW that helps girls and women in conflict-riddled countries live free from violence.

Thousands of girls and women experience violence and rape in Liberia every year. One of those girls is Beatrice,* who was only 14 years old when her hairdresser, a man in his twenties, set his sights on her.

One morning, when she was on her way to visit her aunt, the man caught her off guard and kidnapped her. She remembers being forced into a dark room, where she expected to die.

"I want to have sex with you,” he told her, and refused to let her out until she agreed.

Beatrice spent the day locked in the room. She wanted to defend herself and searched for anything to use as a weapon, but there was nothing in the room.

He returned in the evening, threatening her. "If you tell anyone about this," he said, "I'll kill you and your family."

Beatrice walked home with the man’s words in her head. She didn’t tell her mother anything, but Beatrice's mother, who had been waiting hours for Beatrice to return, knew something was wrong.

When rape is part of the culture

Machismo prevails in Liberia, one of the world's poorest countries. A bloody civil war raged from 1989 to 2003, and rape was used widely as a weapon of war. A survey in 2008 found that 83 percent of Liberians believe a rape victim is partly to blame, that the woman was “asking for it” by dressing provocatively or led the man on. For girls, violence and rape are part of everyday life.

But Beatrice’s mother wouldn’t accept this. She told her daughter, "He forced you; it's not your fault. You must not give up. You're just as valuable as before."

During the interrogation at the police station, Beatrice broke down and let it all out: the confinement, rape, and threats.

Liberia's system of law and justice is ineffective at responding to violence against women and girls like Beatrice. Less than four percent of rape charges end with a sentence. Alongside the official judicial system, there’s also a traditional system in which disputes are mediated by the head of the village or other leaders. In cases of violence against women, the decisions rarely fall in the woman's favor. A rape may end with a small fine on the perpetrator, or nothing at all if the chief thinks it was the woman's fault.

Oxfam is trying to change those odds through programming aimed at empowering women, adolescents, and girls in Guatemala, Liberia, and Burundi—all conflicted-affected areas—to live free from violence and as active citizens. The support for these programs comes from Oxfam’s Funding Leadership and Opportunities for Women (FLOW) fund. FLOW’s approach includes advocating for changing attitudes toward violence against women as well as championing gender-just legislation. For example, we are supporting partners in Liberia trying to enshrine into law an executive order criminalizing domestic violence.

Making the case against gender-based violence

After taking her statement, the police sent Beatrice to the hospital, where she met Florence Vemis, a social worker employed by Oxfam’s partner, the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI). Through FCI and other partners, we are educating hospital staff about how to respond when they see women who have suffered violence.

Vemis helped Beatrice’s family file a lawsuit. FCI guided them through the process, including following up with authorities and helping them financially with legal fees.

"Beatrice was deeply traumatized when I met her for the first time,” Vemis said. “I tried to help her and her family through the process. It is incredibly difficult for the victims in such cases, and often they feel that they are standing alone in the world."

"It was a tough time, but I coped with it because I knew that what he did to me was wrong. I wanted justice," said Beatrice.

Then something happened that almost never happens in Liberia: The perpetrator was sentenced to four years in prison.

Reclaiming her life

After the trial, Beatrice kept to herself. And still her assailant’s family found her and threatened her. She stopped going to school and was shunned by her friends.

"I was very ashamed,” she said. “Imagine being a little girl with such a problem.”

Thankfully, FCI’s work with Beatrice didn’t end with the court case. FCI helps survivors process their trauma and support them as they attempt to move forward. When Vemis discovered that Beatrice was isolating herself, she encouraged her to go back to school.

"You are not the only one it has happened to,” she told Beatrice. “You have to return to school. Everything is going to be all right."

Over the course of many visits, they talked through Beatrice’s experience, and eventually, with Florence’s help, Beatrice returned to school—and to life.

"She gave me courage to go out and meet the world again," said Beatrice.

It has been a year since Beatrice was raped, but her case is bringing hope to women around Liberia. It stands out as one of the few rape cases that led to a verdict last year. It proves to everyone that men cannot always do what they want to women without being punished.

"I'm not giving up so easily,” Beatrice, now 15, says proudly. “One day in the future, I will be a doctor."

*Name changed to protect identity

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