Sexual Violence in Conflict: The Liberian Civil Wars
This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Background of the Conflict
Liberia had a 14-year long civil war that began in 1989 and lasted until 2003. Founded by people who were freed from slavery and left the United States of America in 1821, Liberia’s population is a mix of indigenous groups (95%) and individuals whose heritage goes back to free-born African-Americans and Africans who were captured from slave ships.
The indigenous people in Liberia saw the settlers as colonizers – especially because they took massive swathes of lands from the indigenous people. This led to many clashes, even as the people who arrived from the United States of America ruled the country as colonial powers did – excluding the indigenous population and exploiting them economically. With time, indigenous people ruled their local areas, while the Americo-Liberians controlled politics and society. Patriarchal traditions played a significant role: women did not have the right to vote until 1947, and indigenous women gained the right to vote only later, in the 1950s.
A man from Krahn (an indigenous group), named Samuel Doe, orchestrated a coup in 1980, to topple the regime of President William Tolbert. Along with the Mandingos (a minority ethnic group), he began executing a plan to take revenge against the Americo-Liberians. To do so, he relied on Charles Taylor (an Americo-Liberian himself), and made him the Director of General Services Administration in his government. Charles Taylor made full use of the money he received in this role, diverting all of it to a Swiss Bank Account before leaving the country. In 1989, Charles Taylor returned to Liberia after training in Libya, and launched an offensive against Samuel Doe, after founding the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Doe was killed the following year by a militia leader, and Charles Taylor rose in ranks as a highly feared warlord.
In the 14 years that followed, Liberia was in the throes of a civil war that involved several Liberians as ethnic groups fought one another aggressively. Liberia’s conflict goes back to the days of colonialism. In 1997, elections were held and Charles Taylor was declared the winner. He continued his campaign of violence, conscripting young boys and men as members of his militia.
Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Liberia
Sexual violence was rampant in Liberia. In the peacetime context before the civil war broke out, there were no particular facilities or measures in place for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence – attitudes that fed into the complete lack of support for survivors during the war. Women were abducted, gang-raped, and forced to engage in sexual slavery. The intention behind the use of sexual violence was effectively carried out in ways where women and girls of particular ethnic groups were deliberately targeted and thus more vulnerable to sexual violence. However, it does not seem to have been in the form of ethnic cleansing that has been documented in other conflict contexts. This is particularly relevant as the troops often came from several different ethnic backgrounds. In the words of Leymah Gbowee (n.d.):
“Women had to endure the pain of watching their young sons be forcibly recruited into the army. A few days later these young men would come back into the same village, drugged up, and were made to execute their own family members. Women had to bear the pain of seeing their young daughters…be used as sex slaves at night and as fighters during the day…women had to sit by and watch their husbands, their fathers be taken away. In most instances these men were hacked to pieces."
The aim was also to destroy communities to women, particularly leaving them at the mercy of stigma and vulnerable to more sexual violence. The intent was also to bring shame to women and their families, in instances where the rebels forced, with the threat of death, family members to commit acts of violation against a fellow co-ethnic or family member. Several women had to resort to what is known as “survival sex,” where women had to “provide sexual favours just to pass checkpoints, thus severely restricting their ability to travel,” or even to procure food, protection from violence, resources, and the ability to work for the men in their families during the war.
Women for Peace
Following several years of war, a group of Liberian women came together under Leymah Gbowee’s leadership to create the “Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace.” This group pushed for a meeting with Charles Taylor and made him commit to attend peace talks in Ghana. Following non-violent protests and peaceful demonstrations calling for the warring factions to prioritize peace, the women surrounded the Presidential Palace in a silent protest, calling for the delegations to arrive at a peace agreement. In their pursuit of peace, the women also went on a sex strike, demanding that their husbands set aside their weapons. When the men in the course of the peace talks did not arrive at an agreement, they threatened to undress during their sit in – eventually pushing the leaders to commit to peace.
Following the civil war, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the president of Liberia. She prioritized criminal prosecution of rape and sexual violence. She established women protection units and protection centres within police stations, as well as a special court for the prosecution of sexual violence. However, even after the formal end of the conflict, sexual violence continues in a systematic manner.
Gbowee, Leyman. "Women and Peacebuilding in Liberia: Excerpts from a talk by Leymah Gbowee at the ELCA's Global Mission Event in Milwaukee, WI." Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Nicola Jones, Janice Cooper, Elizabeth Presler-Marshall and David Walker, “The fallout of rape as a weapon of war The life-long and intergenerational impacts of sexual violence in conflict.” (Read
Liberia: Country Profile (Read)
Liberia: Prosecuting Gender Violence Crimes (Read)
Victimcy, Girlfriending, Soldiering: Tactic Agency in a Young Woman's Social Navigation of the Liberian War Zone (Read)
Government of Liberia/UN Joint Programme on Sexual and Gender Based Violence,(2011).In-Depth study on reasons for high incidence of Sexual and Gender Based Violence in Liberia, Recommendations on Prevention and Response. (Read)
Sexual violence in Conflict (Read)
Violence Against Women During the Liberian Civil Conflict (Read)
Definitions of Crimes of Sexual Violence in the ICC (Read)
Liberia: The New War is Rape (Read)
Fraud charged in Liberia's first one-man, one-vote election (Read)
Republic of Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Volume Three: Appendices; Title 1: Women and the Conflict (Read)