The Liberian government has declared rape a national emergency following nearly a month of protests over a startling rise in sexual assault cases in the last year, according to a statement from Liberian President George Weah.
After a two-day anti-rape conference, President Weah announced a series of measures the government was taking to address the issue.
"The declaration of the National Rape Emergency on Friday, September 11, 2020, which has come barely two days out of the national anti-rape conference held on September 8-9, 2020, fulfilled that promise of the President and his zero tolerance stance on rape and SGBV," Weah's government wrote on Friday.
"Under the National Rape Emergency, President Weah declared initial measures that include the appointment of a Special Prosecutor for rape; the setting up of a National Sex Offender Registry; the establishment of a National Security Taskforce on SGBV, and the allotment of an initial amount of US$2 Million to beef up the fight against rape and SGBV in the country," the government said in a statement.
At the conference, Weah said the country is "witnessing what is actually an epidemic of rape within the pandemic, affecting mostly children and young girls across the country," according to AfricaNews.
"This urgent call to action is in response to an alarming increase in rape and sexual and gender-based violence in recent times, especially during a time when we are at war with the deadly Covid-19 pandemic," Weah said.
The declaration was part of a list of demands sent to Weah and the government by protesters, who have demanded action.
"We will mobilize social forces to return to the streets within three weeks. If the government does not take concrete steps to end this rape pandemic, we will be forced to return to the streets to demand solution. We need solutions now and there is no joke about this," said Natalyn Omell Beh, one of the protesters, in an interview with AllAfrica.
The football star turned president has faced weeks of harsh criticism for his mishandling of the rape crisis. Since early August, thousands of women have taken to the street demanding the government do something about the spate of rapes taking over the country.
There have been dozes of cases involving rape and sexual assault that have spurred widespread outrage but one case in particular invoked demands for justice. In August, the "March for Justice" was organized after a 19-year-old allegedly attacked a 3-year-old with a knife before raping her. Women indignant over Weah's lack of action clashed with police during the demonstrations.
Weah, who still managed to refer to himself as a "Feminist-In-Chief" in his Friday statement, spent weeks ignoring the topic and only made the declaration until protests had spread beyond the capital of Monrovia to dozens of cities and states.
A 2016 report from the UN Mission in Liberia and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights found that rape "is the second most commonly reported serious crime in Liberia," and that all 15 of the nation's counties was struggling with a high number of cases.
The same report said the World Health Organization found that “between 61.4 and 77.4% of women and girls in Liberia were raped" during the country's lengthy civil war yet nothing was done to bring justice to victims. That culture of impunity, the report said, has trickled down to now, where just 2% of all rape cases led to court convictions.
“In the Liberian context, victims face challenges at every step of the process if they attempt to hold their assailants criminally accountable. The shame of accusing a community or family member of rape prevented most victims from reporting the case,” the report explained.
“Child rape reports may be higher because they shock the conscience and are not preempted by the generally discriminatory attitudes towards women survivors of rape,” it added, noting that social pressure, police inaction and an ineffective judicial system all contributed to the culture of impunity when it comes to rape and sexual violence.
Margaret Taylor, director of the Women Empowerment Network, told AfricaNews that her group has recorded over 600 cases of rape between June and August and 80 cases in May. FrontPageAfricaOnline reported a total of 992 official rape cases in the country in the past year.
In late August, one of the protesters, Madam Simpson, told FrontPageAfricaOnline that the police had attacked them for demonstrating and violently tried to stop them from highlighting the issue.
“Just for peacefully assembling, they are saying we are making Liberia ugly. This is the police that supposedly sworn to serve and protect – and instead of protecting, they are threatening, they are harassing. We have young people who are here just to speak for their rights and to talk and to talk about what’s going on in this country," Simpson said.
"Rape is an epidemic in Liberia, there needs to be a state of emergency on rape in Liberia, we are truly unprotected, if the police cannot protect us, Thursday in Black, we are unprotected," she added.
The protesters brought a petition to the national legislature in late August demanding action on the issue of sexual and gender-based violence. They demanded the country hire more judges and move faster in investigating rape cases.
“Our mothers and daughters are under attack daily by predators that have no fear of bearing the full weight of the law. These outrageous acts are only persisting because our justice system has been so weak that perpetrators commit these atrocities and go scot-free; because our laws have been made lax and created loopholes for these criminals to exploit," the petition said.
In addition to the measures announced on Friday, Weah said more initiatives would be rolled out in the coming weeks as the government looks for ways to address protester concerns. He also tasked his government with buying DNA machines so rape cases could be processed. The country currently has none, according to RFI.
Many of the Liberian protesters said social media was helping to bring more cases to light after decades of women only being able to rely on their local communities for support or answers, RFI reported.
Some of the protests made their way to the home of former Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who at one point joined the women.
"Given the cases that have recently come out where young babies, three months old, ten years old, are violated…the women felt they had to act," she said, according to RFI.
"Today, they gathered in front of my yard. I could not stay in my house and see all those women out there demonstrating for something that is good for the country and not go there to show solidarity with them," she added.