My closest encounter with statutory rape occurred in January this year. I was riding around Paynesville with two other friends, trading juvenile jokes and just enjoying life. I would later find that a simple observation from one of my friends and our collective actions to further investigate would help us prevent a case of rape.
“Why is that man walking around with an erect penis?” my friend exclaimed, in what I thought was another one of his characteristically inappropriate jokes. However, the expression on his face had changed and he appeared quite serious.
“And he’s holding a little girl’s hand,” my friend further observed.
We decided to turn the car around and investigate more closely. As we got closer, we could see an older, gangly man, likely in his mid-40s, casually walking while holding the hand of a girl who was no older than 10.
When we stopped the car near him and rolled the window down, he looked startled and let go of the young girl’s hand. He proffered an inconsistent defense, first saying that the girl was his daughter, then conceding that he didn’t know her once we asked the girl herself.
We directed the girl to get into the car and asked for the location of her mother. As we drove her over to deliver her to her mother, a marketer at the ELWA Junction Market, we learned more disturbing information.
The young girl had gone to school and was supposed to head over to her mother in the market. While heading to the market, she had run into this man, who coaxed her into accompanying him to his workplace. We asked about a smile she wore on her face as she and the predator chatted.
“He say he going give me L$200,” she responded in Liberian English.
We escorted the young girl to her mother and explained what we had witnessed, asking her to pay closer attention to her daughter in the future.
This was my closest encounter with such an incident, especially where it affects someone so young. It still baffles me to this day to know that if we hadn’t intervened, the girl would have been raped.
However, I’m convinced that incidents of children being abused occur regularly across Liberia and it’s up to every one of us to act to protect these children. In our case, while we were able to stop one rape from happening, in hindsight, we likely could have done more. At the moment, we hadn’t considered calling the police and that predator is still walking around unhindered and free to prey on other young girls.
In the wake of the reports of rapes at the More Than Me Academy by two staff members, Liberians are paying closer attention to the widespread phenomenon of sexual abuse of children. So many conversations are sprouting up on social media platforms, where we’re all either realizing or being reminded that this is an epidemic that is embedded within the cultural fabric of the nation. The case is making us realize that as a society, we simply aren’t doing enough to protect young children from abuse.
While we need to seek justice for the girls raped at More Than Me, we need to understand that the society we have created has left many other children vulnerable and regularly harmed – and not just sexually.
UNICEF reports that 94 percent of children aged 2-14 are subjected to some form of psychological or physical punishment. Additionally, one out of five children is involved in child labor. Child marriage is extremely high (49 percent of women were first married or in unions before ages 15-18). Teenage pregnancy is more common than it should be, afflicting 31 percent of teenage girls. Moreover, we all likely know about children brought from rural Liberia to live with extended family members in Monrovia who essentially become maids. These facts should make us stop and reevaluate our actions.
And what have we done? When we see signs of ill-treatment of children, do we make an effort to intervene? When we hear inappropriate conversations suggestive of abuse to minors, do we speak up and let people know that it’s not OK?
As Liberians continue to push for justice for the victims of rape at More Than Me, as we push for the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education to strengthen their systems, let us also consider our individual actions to ensure that children are protected.
Featured photo by Martine Perret/UNMEER