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Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, came to power in Liberia a year ago, promising to tackle the problem of rape, which had become increasingly common during the previous 14 years of conflict in the country.
Will Ross has been travelling around Liberia to assess whether that war on rape is being won.
“I like to turn lemon into lemonade — make a bad situation into a good one,” declared the smartly dressed woman as she entered the room.
Annie Demen is Liberia’s deputy minister of gender, a post set up to empower women.
She also heads the taskforce charged with stamping out sexual violence in Liberia. But there was not much to smile about when I turned up later that day to interview her.
News had just reached the office that an 11-year-old girl called Janjay had died after being raped six months ago.
Janjay’s mother said the rape had left her so badly injured she was incontinent and had to wear nappies.
I had driven past Monrovia’s cemetery several times — large white tombstones on which names were crudely written in black paint. They were often hard to read as the grass was head-high.
With young, dangerous-looking men sitting on some of the graves, it looked like the kind of place to avoid. But, as I followed Janjay’s small white coffin through the cemetery, the main risk was to the feet and the nose.
With no public toilets in Monrovia, you have to tread carefully and, as the cemetery had also become a rubbish dump, some of the mourners held handkerchiefs over their noses.
Several women beside the grave held black and white photos of young Janjay and had written alongside each photo, “Stop rape”.
Similar messages are splashed all over Monrovia on billboards.
“Seek free treatment now at Benson Clinic,” reads another. It is run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
With a queue outside her door, the head nurse told me that five to 10 people arrive there every day but half of them are not women. They are young girls between five and 12 years old.
And it gets worse.
Each month the clinic treats several babies for rape but, from all the cases that have been recorded by the clinic since 2003, you can count the number of men convicted on one hand.
One such case was in the town of Gbarnga last week.
The road there is pretty good by Liberian standards but you still end up performing a kind of slalom to avoid numerous potholes.
The town’s High Court was shut and it looked as though somebody had lost the key years ago.
But there was some life at the Magistrate’s Court, where a man thumped away on a typewriter as the magistrate summed up the latest case.
A woman stood in the dock accused of beating somebody else’s daughter.
I could not wait for the verdict — there were too many delays, as the wounded typewriter was nursed back to health.
‘Seduced by the devil’
A crude court this may have been but, in a country which was ruled by the gun for 14 years, it is a step in the right direction.
I met a man who knew a man who knew where the man with the keys to the High Court lived.
Now often in Africa on a Friday the phrase, “the man with the key is not around” really means come back next week.
But on this occasion I was in luck.
The man with the key may have been drunk and snoozing at home but he was friendly and in the mood to help.
In the court he ruffled through a collection of dusty files and then started reading.
Fifty-seven-year-old Stephen Dollo, being moved and seduced by Satan the Devil, intentionally jumped on the peaceful five-year-old girl, removed her clothes and committed the crime of rape.
And then the file of Arthur Blackie, a 64-year-old man who was found guilty of raping an eight-year-old girl, Josephine.
Arthur Blackie is a church pastor.
Now, I have asked plenty of people here to try to shed some light on why a man would rape a five-year-old or even a baby and, after the initial shrug of the shoulders, there is often a whisper or two about superstition or belief.
They think it will bring them good luck, one man told me.
In South Africa people have struggled to dispel the belief that raping a baby helps prevent or cure HIV Aids. And it is possible that a similar belief exists here.
It is exactly a year since Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, was sworn into office.
When she announced a war on rape, she broke new ground by saying that she too had been a victim of sexual violence.
There has been some legal reform and rape is no longer a bailable offence but little else has changed.
The hope among many here is that the death of young Janjay will kick-start the war on rape.
(Posted on January 19, 2007)