“I was raped during the war by three men. I live with two stigmas: of rape and of HIV.” In her statement, Benetta describes the situation of thousands of Liberian women. But what makes Benetta different is that she is breaking the silence around these difficult issues.
“Most women will not disclose their positive status because they will be blamed for bringing HIV in the home and their partners will abandon them,” she explains. “If you are known to have HIV, people will also say you were a prostitute and that is how you contracted the virus.”
As part of an Action Aid Liberia project that addresses violence and HIV, Benetta is adding her voice to confront stigma and violations of women’s rights in Liberia. With support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, the project is implemented in the South-Eastern counties where the twin pandemics are rampant, exacerbated by poverty, traditional justice systems, and low awareness on protection laws and what constitutes violence against women.
Making the Link
Rape and other forms of violence were widely used as a weapon of war during Liberia’s 15-year civil conflict. Embedded in traditional norms and behaviour acquired during the war, violence continues to cast a long shadow over the lives of women and girls.
While Liberia has established laws to address the crimes, including the Rape Law of 2006 and inheritance law of 2005, especially in the remote counties of Grand Gedeh and River Gee in South-East Liberia, traditions and patriarchal power structures hinder their implementation.
Violence is also one of the drivers of HIV in Liberia, especially for young women: women aged 15-24 are three times more likely to be HIV-positive than men of the same age. There is however little awareness on this critical link.
Using a holistic approach to ensure justice and services for women and girls affected by violence and HIV, and to prevent violence, Action Aid engages traditional leaders, law enforcement and health care workers to build their capacity to respond to survivors’ needs and to establish a much-needed safe-house in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County. The project also facilitates community-led psychosocial support groups and mobilizes local women leaders and groups to address violence.
“In the past, when men beat their wives or children, the families did not report it,” says Angeline Baryou, a community clinic nurse in River Gee. “But after Action Aid trained the health workers, police, and the chiefs, violence has decreased based on the level of awareness we are providing for the community.”
Government officials are also taking notice of the encouraging results.. “ActionAid has been instrumental in ensuring that cases of gender-based violence are handled,” says the county Attorney of Grand Gedeh, J. Adolphus Karnuah. “More people are informed about rape and violence against women.”
Communities Drive Change
To spark change at the community level, Action Aid uses a special participatory method entitled Societies Tackling AIDS through Rights (STAR). STAR is an approach that facilitates the mobilization of people and communities affected by HIV and AIDS and those living with HIV to respond to the pandemic through mutual reflection, analysis, planning and joint action.
Using this methodology, Action Aid has trained 40 young women and men from six communities to facilitate STAR circles that reach over 700 community members, especially youth.
De-etta Jolo, a STAR Circle facilitator in Grand Gedeh, says: “Rape used to be high in our community, but cases were usually not reported.” Traditional conflict resolution practices, such as killing a goat for the entire community to have a feast in order to make peace, often undermine women’s rights. But change is happening: “Since the intervention of ActionAid through the STAR and other trainings, rape cases are reported with evidence to convict the perpetrators,” De-etta says.
Another STAR Circle facilitator, Agnes Wesseh, a 26-year-olf mother of four, also has a powerful story of transformation to share. “Earlier, I was not free in my home. I was used like a slave and my husband treated me as he wished,” she explains. “But then Action Aid conducted a training on women’s rights in my community. After it, we explained to our partners what we had learned, and gradually they began to realize that they were not treating us fairly. Then my husband also participated in a workshop and his attitude changed. Now, he recognizes that we share equal rights. He no longer controls all our money, and he does not beat me anymore.”
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