COVID-19 fuelling violence and discrimination: Liberia must confront a damaging combination for girls’ rights

By Foday M. Kawah

Executive Director DCI-Liberia

Liberia has an estimated population of 4.8 million, roughly half of which is under the age of 18but the country will not reap the benefits of this demographic dividend unless the situation of women and girls improves. With strong and entrenched patriarchal social norms and stereotypes, violence against women and girls has been socially accepted. As such, on a global scale, Liberia currently ranks 177 out of 188 countries on the overall measures used to determine the gender inequality index. Rates of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), harmful practices, female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and teenage pregnancy are all high, while access to sexual and reproductive health rights is low. 


Progress in peacebuilding and security after the Second Civil War (1999-2003) has not translated into actions to eliminate violence against women and girls (VAWG) and marginalised groups; rather, VAWG has contributed to destabilising peace and security in the country, with increasing media attention leading to protests by civilians, among which the youth that makes up 63% of the population[1] expressing high frustration at the lack of response and action from the Government. However, the current Government of President George Weah has indicated a strong focus on improving the realisation of women’s and girls’ rights in its recently launched five-year development plan called the Pro-Poor Agenda for Prosperity and Development (PAPD). The PAPD is aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are strongly embedded within the overall PAPD, ten years to 2030. 


There can be no sustainable development and human rights without peace and no peace without development human rights. The SDGs are a collection of 17 interlinked global goals, mutually reinforcing when used with human rights processes. Defence for Children International is using all avenues to raise girls’ voices both in New York, Geneva processes by participating in the High-Level Political Forum and Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions. 


The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process which is part of the HRC and involves a review of the human rights records of all UN Member States. Back in 2015, the State of Liberia already received 27 recommendations from Member States related to violence during the previous UPR cycle. Unfortunately, a widespread culture of impunity for SGBV, particularly for rape, persists and the COVID-19 pandemic put young women and girls at increased risk of violence exacerbated by economic hardships and despair within families. Unintended pregnancies are also on the rise with potentially many deaths of girls from unsafe abortion and complicated births due to inadequate access to emergency care. 

Despite efforts by the State to implement the international legal frameworks to eradicate child marriage at the national level, gaps still exist between these legislations and the customary laws, in particular those relating to child rights issues. The Constitution dictates that national legislation should take precedence over customary laws. In practice, customary laws are much more widely used particularly in rural areas of Liberia and affect the majority of the population primarily. Moreover, the Optional Protocols to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on the involvement of children in armed conflict, and the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography, were both signed in 2004, but not yet ratified . 


On March 18th, 2021, the Human Rights Council in Geneva held the UPR adoption of Liberia as an outcome of the 36th session. Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, Minister of Justice, Attorney General of the Republic of Liberia confirmed that 166 recommendations (out of 218) were adopted but 52 noted. Among the ones only noted, Defence for Children International Liberia regrets the lack of political will to address female genital mutilations. Harmful practices prevent girls to from participatinge as citizens and they are often subject to child marriage. The refusal of the State to change the status quo is not justified by the facts given Liberia’s continued lack of accountability on this gross violation of physical integrity. Liberia’s approach also runs counter to SDG target 5.3 ‘Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation), and no significant progress on justice for victims has been observed. 


Setting aside these key recommendations on FGM are not in the best interest of the children of Liberia. It is unfortunate that the Government of Liberia will place a moratorium and Executive orders on the Practice of FGM but cannot ban its practices in keeping with the Concluding Observations and Recommendations of the UPR, CEDAW, UNCRC, and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. On the contrary, Liberia continues to fail girls with empty words on February 6th of each year in observance of the eradication of FGM in the world and no action for victims and survivors. The Government is not in the position to commit to recommendations without the requisite preparation. 


DCI-Liberia urges the Government of Liberia, and in particular the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection to submit the overly due State Party reports, since January 2018, to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC). Child rights can never be fully upheld unless they are also enjoyed by all girls. Persistent gender inequalities and abuse, including sexual and gender-based violence, have deprived Liberian girls of a more just and better world. Being born a girl should not be a life sentence of inequality and injustice. 


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