Friday, January 20, 2006

President Sirleaf to crack down on rape

Africa: Considering the War, the effects on society, its going to take decades if it ever comes to pass that rape is treated like the crime it should be. But for now, cracking down on rapists with tough sentencing and showing victims they can come forward to defend themselves without fear should be the short term goal.

Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, came to power on a huge surge of support from women voters, hopeful that a woman leader would right some of the wrongs done to them during 14 years of civil war. One of her first pledges was to do something about the scourge of rape, using new legislation that came into force the day after her inauguration. Rape is not a word you often hear in polite society. It is certainly not something that presidents talk about in their inaugural address. But after being sworn in on Monday, Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf stood up and said something that galvanised her audience. "I know of the struggle because I have been a part of it," she said. "I recall the inhumanity of confinement, the terror of attempted rape." ....What has finally made this a public issue is the fact that the fighting is over, but the rape has not stopped. Liberians like Grace Boiwu are being forced to confront the fact that the war may have done permanent damage to their society. "Men were forced to have intercourse with their daughters in front of the soldiers," Ms Boiwu said. "The soldiers forced brother and sister or son and mother to have sex in front of the husband ... So it broke the family ties." A public information campaign on Liberian radio reassures women that "rape is a wicked thing that the law can take care of". But there is severe doubt about whether the law can handle rape cases in Liberia. Until very recently, rape was a bailable offence. That meant that even if a suspect was arrested, he could be out of jail and back home the next day - and in a position to intimidate anyone who might give evidence against him. Life imprisonment Lois Bruthus, the president of the Liberian Association of Women Lawyers, says that in the past, it was almost impossible to bring a successful prosecution. "Under the old law, it was extremely difficult," Ms Bruthus said. "We have prosecuted a single case since 1999. And we prosecuted that one case because during that time, it was a female judge that was sitting on the case." But the campaigning has paid off. In December, a new and much tougher rape law was passed and it came into force the day after Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf's inauguration. The law widens the definition of rape to cover penetration with any foreign object, and not just the penis. Also, when a victim is under the age of 18, she is automatically deemed not to have given consent. The law also covers gang rape, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment.

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