Land of Confusion – Protection of Women and Children in Liberia

In spite of the efforts made by international actors to have the Liberian National Police’s (LNP) Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) working to provide women and children with a special recourse to justice institutions, a number of challenges remain unaddressed. Many of these challenges are also a product of how these sections were established and funded, the lack of a coherent and comprehensive understanding of the functioning of justice institutions in Liberia, the challenges reforming or building these institutions represent, and how these new institutions are to interact with traditional institutions and practices. In 2008 there was a WACPS of the LNP in every county capital in Liberia (fifteen in total). In spite of these efforts, however, UNMIL has been forced to recognize the fact that “sexual violence against women and children remains a central reality of life in Liberia” (UNMIL 2008b).

The WACPS were established with the intention of addressing the pressing concerns the international community had with GBV in Liberia. That women and children now had a dedicated section within the LNP which dealt with GBV no doubt would ensure that these issues were addressed by the police. The question which nevertheless remained was: what happened with a case after it was reported to WACPS. For instance, one of the issues the establishment of WACPS was meant to address is the relatively high degree of impunity for GBV crimes. But as a legal specialist interviewed in Monrovia exclaimed to us, “The problem in Liberia is not that victims of rape don’t get justice, but that no one gets justice!” In a country where judges in many cases do not have knowledge of the penal code, and where the police only rarely possess investigative tools and skills, it is doubtful whether the establishment of the WACPS alone will lead to a higher rate of conviction. Furthermore, the problems may be exacerbated by the fact that victims who do report crimes lose faith in the institutions of justice, as reported criminals seldom face convictions. Furthermore, while the institutions of rule of law are to some degree present in Monrovia, they often lack outside of the capital. As one NGO worker involved in GBV work explained, “No place outside of Monrovia has all the pieces of rule of law”. The major international presence in Liberia is in Monrovia, and as such inferences about the spread of rule of law institutions in general, and the WACPS in particular to the whole country must be done carefully – if at all. As one NGO worker said to us in Monrovia, “What’s in it for the victims? Why should they report a rape when they know the perpetrator and nothing ever really happens?”

 “Modern” and Traditional Justice Institutions

The efforts to address GBV and the impunity of perpetrators as well as the general (re)building of the institutions of the rule of law must be seen in the context of which functions the new institutions are to fulfill, and which ones are already fulfilled by the traditional “justice” system. Rather than seeking to supplant the traditional system, one needs to understand how these systems can supplement each other. In this respect it is important to understand how they interact in practice today. As became clear to us, victims of GBV do not always get their cases investigated. As one police officer told us, once a victim has reported a crime the police “investigate, but sometimes compromise.” Recourse to the WACPS in other words is no guarantee that the case will be investigated or passed through the court system. And while it is beyond the scope of this brief to address the desirability of this, one thing is nevertheless clear: As long as the international community has absolutely no understanding of how the traditional system works, there is little chance that effective measures to counter GBV in rural areas will succeed. The view advanced by most representatives of the international community we met during three fieldworks in Liberia simply goes to show the extent to which the UN system lacks the knowledge to address GBV in a comprehensive manner.

 Conclusion

The point of this blog post has not been to denigrate the efforts made by international donors and the UN. Addressing the problem of GBV in Liberia cannot be done without their support. However, these efforts so far have tended to fit the donors’ own agenda rather than the needs on the ground. One consequence of this is that efforts to reform and (re)build rule of law institutions by the international community are done without the most basic knowledge of how the administration of justice functions in Liberia. Furthermore, it is often done without thinking about the consequences of these efforts with respect to other rule of law institutions. As a result, efforts such as the WACPS do not function as well as they were intended. Budgets for logistical follow up are not provided for, the equipment provided does not fit the working routines of the LNP, and while the WACPS might function to some extent when looked upon separately, when seen in relation to other rule of law institutions, the efforts seem quite often misplaced as no efforts are made at addressing the system comprehensively.

Literature

UNICEF (2005) “New women and children protection section for Liberia’s police”. Available at http://www.unicef.org/media/media_28159.html

UNMIL (2008a) “New Confidence in Liberian Police Has More Women and Children Reporting Crime” 15 June. Available at http://unmil.org/article.asp?id=2788

UNMIL (2008b) “Liberia: UNMIL Humanitarian Situation” Report No. 156, 24 November. Available at http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/EGUA7LPQBP?OpenDocument

UNMIL (2008c) “UNPOL Commissioner urges for the protection of women and children against sexual violence and abuse” 01 December. Available at http://unmil.org/article.asp?id=3036

UNMIL (2008d) “Continued human and financial support needed to bolster Liberia’s Police Force” 15 December. Available at http://unmil.org/1article.asp?id=3057&zdoc=1

Norwegian Embassy in Côte d’Ivoire (2008) “Norway commended for supporting Liberia’s recovery” available at http://www.norvege.ci/info/Coop%C3%A9ration/MedaljeseremoniPoliti.Liberia.htm