Sexualised violence in conflict and post-conflict situations

Armed conflict has prevailed in the West African Mano River region for two decades, and although the civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast have ended, the political situation is still fragile. Deep divisions exist between government and society. Every election is dominated by the fear of new violence. Poor governance, a lack of constitutionality, corruption, and the dependence on unjust global economic and development relationships: all of this is an obstacle to lasting transformation in the region. One legacy of the conflicts is the high level of sexualised violence. Thousands of women and girls were raped during the civil wars, and gender-based violence and structural discrimination are still firmly anchored in society and institutions today.

Eight facts about women's rights in Liberia:

1. Sexualised wartime violence during the civil wars

During the civil wars in Liberia from 1989 to 2003, between 60 and 70 per cent of all women and girls in the country were raped. The perpetrators have never been brought to justice. For decades, Liberian civil society has been calling for justice for the crimes committed during the civil war era, but the Liberian governments have failed to meet these demands.

2. Sexualised violence in so-called ‘peacetime’

A woman is carrying a sack of brushwood on her head as she walks past a grey, cracked wall.

Rape is the second most commonly reported major crime in Liberia. Of all violent crimes, 70 per cent are rapes and so-called ‘domestic violence’. Almost all of the survivors are women, and 80 per cent are minors. Civil society protests against sexualised violence and impunity led the governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia to declare states of national emergency in 2019 and 2020.

3. Impunity for the mostly male perpetrators

In Liberia in 2016, a sentence was passed in only some 2 per cent of all reported cases of rape, and in Sierra Leone it was only 1 per cent. Sexualised violence is a criminal offence and is being taken to court more often, but the generally male perpetrators are rarely sentenced, due to administrative inefficiency and corruption. Fear of stigmatisation and retaliation also mean that many survivors do not report the crimes. Only some three per cent of affected women and girls have access to safe houses.

4. Ebola and Covid-19: Sexualised violence increases during crises

A woman wearing a simple face covering is holding a poster with information about Covid-19 and talking to several other people.

During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, there was a 50 per cent increase in teenage pregnancies in Sierra Leone. Causes for this included a lack of protection, more rapes, and survival prostitution. In the Covid-19 pandemic the situation repeated itself: in the first six months of the pandemic in 2020, Liberia recorded more than 1,000 cases of sexualised and gender-based violence.

5. Female genital cutting widespread

A drawing of a vulva with explanatory labelling of individual parts such as the clitoris and vaginal opening.

Female genital cutting, also referred to as mutilation (FGM), is accepted as a common practice and has general public support in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. In Liberia about one half of the female population is affected, in Ivory Coast more than one third. In Sierra Leone nine out of ten girls are cut. West African activists have been campaigning against this traditional practice for years, calling for prohibitions and education of the whole population on the issue.

6. Many girls cannot read or write

The literacy rate of women and girls over 15 in Sierra Leone is 25 per cent, compared to 42 per cent for men. In Liberia the figures are 27 per cent for women and 60 per cent for men. Some 20 per cent of Liberian schoolgirls are subjected to sexualised violence and exploitation by their teachers.

7. Reproductive health and teenage pregnancies

Liberia has an alarmingly high rate of teenage pregnancy, with estimates of three out of ten Liberian girls becoming unintentionally pregnant before they turn 18. More than 60 per cent of women and girls between the age of 15 and 49 have no satisfactory access to family planning.

8. Very little participation of women in political processes

A woman is carrying a sign on her head with the words “Women and girls are important in the society”.

The West African women's movement looks back on a long history: they played a significant part in the anti-colonial resistance, in the struggles for equal rights, and in the historical protests of peace activists that led to the end of the Liberian civil war and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female president. However, although women play a leading role in peacebuilding and democratisation, their political participation is still very restricted. In the parliaments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, the proportions of women do not exceed 12 per cent.

Practical achievements:

Last year, the Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative in Liberia educated 450 girls on the issues of their rights, sexuality and health.

The Forum Against Harmful Practices alliance in Sierra Leone educated 150 school pupils, 50 school directors and 75 teachers in three districts on the topic of female genital mutilation.

Women Aid in Liberia operates a safe house which provided refuge, counselling and material assistance to more than 100 women and girls affected by violence.

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Partner organisations:

Liberia: ADWANGA, Medica Liberia, Rising Youth Mentorship Initiative, Women Aid Incorporated
Sierra Leone: Action Pro, AdvocAid, Choices and Voices Foundation for Women and Girls, Forum Against Harmful Practices, Girl 2 Girl Empowerment Movement, WEAP, Women Against Violence and Exploitation in Society (WAVES)
Ivory Coast: Centre Féminin pour la démocratie et les droits humains en Côte d'Ivoire (CEFCI), West Africa Network for Peacebuilding in Côte d'Ivoire (WANEP)

Project priorities:

  • Integrated support for women and girls
  • Establishing community-based protection and referral systems, and training staff in the healthcare, security and legal sectors
  • Advocacy work for women’s rights

Funding and funders:

German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)
KfW (the German development bank)/ Welthungerhilfe
Pro Victimis Foundation
Medicor Foundation
Own resources

Source: Annual Report 2020

Overview of all partner organisations of medica mondiale

1. Prevention of sexualised violence

Portrait of a woman in a village in Liberia.

In order to prevent sexualised and gender-based violence, our partner organisations work to try and convince government and civil society to assume responsibility for the protection of women and girls. At the same time, the women’s rights organisations empower women and girls to protect themselves and demand their rights.

Liberia: Political commitment to protection and prevention

In order to provide the impulse for change in society, our partner organisations are active at the political level. In Liberia, medica Liberia works together with numerous women’s rights organisations and with the Women’s and Justice Ministries in a National Task force on gender-based violence, seeking to improve the protection and prevention measures. medica Liberia: Active commitment to equal rights and participation medica Liberia was involved in the development of Domestic Violence Act, as well as the National Action Plan to implement UN Resolution 1325, which should ensure equal participation of women in peace and security policy initiatives.

Liberia: Societal education on the prevention of violence

Four women are sitting in a studio during the recording of a radio program.

In order to encourage the social surroundings of women to accept responsibility for protecting women, medica Liberia organises events in market places, schools and hospital wards to raise awareness of women’s rights and the issue of sexualised violence. In the radio program “Know your rights”, the legal counsellors from medica Liberia answer questions on land issues and maintenance payments for women. They target men as well, encouraging them to become “change agents” working for a better position of women and girls.

medica Liberia: Together against harassment of schoolgirls

In the wake of large numbers of schoolgirls being subjected to sexualised harassment, in 2018 medica Liberia joined forces with the Liberia Feminist Forum to initiate one of the country’s largest protest marches. Their message was accompanied by an awareness campaign and the hashtag #weareunprotected, and directed at both government and society.

Sierra Leone: Politically active against child marriage

In Sierra Leone, the priority at WAVES is access to education for girls. The organisation also fights at the political level against child marriage and female genital cutting. In 2019, WAVES and other activists successfully took a case to the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), seeking an end to a law used by the Sierra Leone government to forbid pregnant girls from attending school.

Ivory Coast: Public awareness on the causes of violence

A large number of women sitting on rows of seats under a tent roof.

The Women’s Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in the Ivory Coast is successfully drawing public attention to the causes and consequences of female genital cutting and marriages of underage girls.

2. Solidarity and support for survivors

Women and girls who have experienced sexualised violence need appropriate psychosocial, medical, legal and economic assistance. This is why our partner organisations offer survivors low-threshold contact points, trauma-sensitive counselling, and support as they make their way through the institutions.

Liberia: Local protection networks and direct counselling 

Six women and a child are sitting next to each other on low benches in a small village square.

medica Liberia has established community-based support and protection networks which can offer rapid assistance to affected women even in remote regions. Women’s groups serve as an initial point of contact. Counsellors trained by medica Liberia can support women and accompany them to the police or hospital. Where appropriate, they also mediate between survivors and their families and involve the village elders in the conflict resolution efforts.

medica Liberia: Referral system for serious cases

In serious cases, the local protection networks facilitate contact between the survivors and the team from medica Liberia in the county capitals. Depending on their needs, the women and girls then receive psychosocial, legal, or medical counselling.

Liberia: Trauma-sensitive training within institutions

Increasingly often, after their contact with medica Liberia, many of the local authorities responsible for traditional mediation are taking the side of the women and helping them to take their case to court. Further, medica Liberia is providing training for police staff, lawyers, judges and teachers on the issues of gender, violence and human rights, as well as the stress- and trauma-sensitive approach to dealing with those affected by sexualised violence.

3. Feminist work and regional networking

A woman with her fist raised is smiling into the camera.

While the extent of sexualised violence in the region has been increasing for years, women’s rights defenders in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast are also facing the same trend that can be observed globally of civil society becoming more and more restricted in its scope for action. There is also a decline in the access to funding for women’s rights work in the region. So a strategically important component of the work in West Africa is the strengthening of feminist work and cross-border networking.

Strengthening local women’s rights organisations

As part of the co-operation with partner organisations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, medica mondiale is intentionally creating opportunities for our partner organisations to enhance their structures, synergies and strategies. Examples include building up funding strategies or documentation systems, as well as the introduction of security concepts and self-care procedures.

Feminist networking leads to sustainable impacts

The further development of strategies and networking with other feminist actors in the region also support the organisations in the long term. This overall approach enhances women’s rights work in the area and helps to bring about societal change.

(Status of: 2021)