In a recent response to questions about the role of the war and the attacks on foreign health workers, I wrote:

…. if war has changed anything, the incredible influx of humanitarian interventions and aid workers during the war and its immediate aftermath — where outsiders and their local cronies seemed to benefit openly from others’ suffering — has also engendered suspicion that has helped fuel the backlash against local and international health workers.

Here, I am expanding on this claim, which is intended to complement Susan Shepler’s piece about mistrust of the ‘vampire state’.

When I first traveled to Sierra Leone in 2003, I was a research consultant working with an international NGO. While it was not my first time consulting to NGOs in Africa, it was my first time working in a certified post-conflict zone. Peacekeeping forces were still very visible and present. Expatriate security was often a topic of official conversation. The free movements of outsiders, particularly whites and Westerners, but also expatriates from ‘developing’ countries, shed light on the kinds of hierarchies that lie at the core of humanitarian enterprise. Their unfettered mobility in the form of NGO sports utility vehicles, easily secured travel visas, and financial resources did not go unnoticed.

Disparities in mobility between aid workers and locals were brought to the fore whenever someone asked me about getting visa sponsorship, or asylum in Europe or the US, or when anyone commented about the short duration of my several months’ (initial) stay in Sierra Leone. Humanitarian mobility and the ease, scale and direction of humanitarian movement reflected a hierarchy of risk and protection, in which local populations’ protection — presumably the reason for humanitarian aid in the first place — is secondary to the protection of humanitarian aid workers. This is not a new concern for anthropologists of humanitarianism.

So when I wrote about mistrust of the humanitarian aid industry, I was focusing primarily on the mistrust of the institutions and individuals who represent them — not the sorely needed aid they provide. Far too many mainstream journalists have come to conflate suspicion of foreign health workers with mistrust of Western medicine. While Ebola may impact how and whether people seek care at government health facilities, people are willing to seek biomedical treatment, especially if qualified health personnel provide them in well-stocked facilities and at a cost they can afford. Many communities eagerly accept highly skilled and specialized international service providers, like MSF; such organizations usually deliver health care in a way that people appreciate.

Yet it is important to note that the coordinated international response that one should expect in an outbreak of Ebola, much like that during the wars in the region, came late and was poorly organized. The national health systems tasked with containing the outbreak are under-resourced and ill-prepared for an epidemic of this magnitude. The characteristics of the disease, communities’ lack of experience with it, and limited health workforce, clearly shape their reactions to institutional responses to the outbreak.

It does not help, either, that in this particular crisis, the differential valuing of local versus foreign lives is brought into sharp relief. When a previously unseen disease like Ebola makes its appearance and foreign health workers and all their brethren in the development and international aid community are immediately evacuated for their protection, questions of their motivations, commitments and sincerity about providing relief inevitably surface: where are the “helpers” when the going gets tough? While US media have primarily focused on international health workers’ efforts to combat the disease, national health workers and volunteers have been putting their lives on the line to contain the virus and to care for sick patients. Others abandon have abandoned their posts when faced with the possibility of death.

Through the efforts of powerful local advocates and members of the diaspora, medical supplies are now coming in from all over. When it comes to foreign workers, however, a double standard persists in which protection for health workers is not created equal: a Congolese nurse dies in Liberia, but a Spanish one working for the same mission must not be allowed to languish in the same way; a prominent Sierra Leonean physician and virologist dies — is even denied the opportunity for an experimental therapy– but Americans are flown to Atlanta and given that same experimental therapy.

The humanitarian and development industries, despite operating under different temporal orders (emergency and long-term social change, respectively), are still largely characterized by a kind of ephemerality and mobility. Development-oriented organizations may maintain a long-term presence, but health and development priorities change as political will changes. Expatriate staff move in and out of place, because remaining in place too long often hinders their upward mobility.

Humanitarian emergency relief is just that; in times of crisis, it provides some respite but no cures. In protracted crises like those in the region now affected by Ebola, expatriate staff with long-term contracts receives ample recuperation breaks to decompress from the stress of living under difficult conditions. At the same time, the movements of West Africans within and outside of the region are quite literally perceived to be pathological in nature. Evacuations of Westerners are seen as necessary, while those who abandon their posts in the absence of protection are seen as pariahs.

As I have written elsewhere, when we hear about mistrust, suspicion and fear amongst the communities affected, it is about the curious appearance of the disease and its severity; it is embedded in a wider history of suspicion of certain institutions — humanitarian and governmental ones among them– and what motivates the work that they do; and it is rooted in a wider history in which charity and aid appear to enrich some while leaving others high and dry.

Adia Benton, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, Brown University, USA. Public health scholar, anthropologist and author of HIV Exceptionalism: Development through Disease in Sierra Leone (University of Minnesota Press 2015).


Monrovia, 11 August 2014

In this article, the writer urges the need to humanize the response to the Ebola Virus Disease in Liberia. Persons affected by the Ebola virus do not make them to be less human – they are human persons…fathers, mothers, sisters, friends, love ones, neighbors…the capacity to care for affected persons and to protect those health workers who are in direct contact with such persons because of their professional line of work, should be given priority.

Liberia reported its first case early in the year. There was an ebb, a period of lull when the virus appeared to have been contained. Just as the lull came, followed by this period of seeming storm, so there will be an aftermath, a period without Ebola.

This is a human tragedy that affects families, communities and society. That a person died from Ebola does not make the loss less shocking or painful. Fear should not replace people’s compassion for the sick and for those who are bereaved. Yet the health advice that people should not handle dead bodies of persons suspected to have died from Ebola should be taken seriously since it is a known route for the transmission of the virus; just as it is the case with persons who are sick with the symptoms of the Ebola virus.

The Ebola symptoms include high fever, vomiting, bleeding and nervous system damage. Some of these symptoms are similar to endemic diseases in Liberia such as malaria, dysentery and typhoid. This does not make the situation any easy. It is therefore important to enhance the capacity of the authorities to test suspected cases and provide quick feedback to communities. This kind of feedback can lend credibility to the Ebola response and to people’s confidence in the authorities and their response.

Each day, there are reports on radio airways, by callers from different communities in Monrovia about dead bodies waiting to be attended. This appears to be an apparent response by families and communities afraid to provide burial for suspect Ebola deaths and it is clear that the authorities lack the capacity to respond with immediacy.

Importantly, the ultimate priority should be directed at efforts to contain and stem the further spread to unaffected regions in Liberia, and other high risk areas where people live in congested conditions: prison and detention centres, orphanages and welfare centres. The State and its relevant arm should exercise serious duty of care, where individuals such as prisoners and detainees are under direct State care. These should include special preventative measures for orphanages and welfare institutions, and those quarantined for other communal diseases such as Tubercolusis.

It is now clear, that at the highest level of the Liberian Government the seriousness of the Ebola epidemic is unquestioned.  Schools have been closed, non-essential public servants ordered to stay home. A state of emergency declared.

The messages and the measures should aim to avoid panic and hysteria. These measures should aim to assure people that authorities have a full understanding and a better grip of the situation.

The efforts by the authorities to re-open hospitals that have been close are welcome. These hospitals and health centres are needed to respond to this health emergency. More importantly, the capacity of the health care system should be strengthened to respond to other endemic diseases. In additional, measures in the term of mobile health care delivery should be considered to take into account activities such as routine vaccination for children under five; and supportive care for pregnant and lactating mothers.

Perhaps non-essential servants asked to remain home can assist in community mobilization and awareness, in terms of Ebola preventive measures.

Minus war, never, has a single issue dominated the discourse for too long in Liberia. Ebola is the bug that has succeeded in doing so.

The Lull

During this period, a sense of assurance that the threat had come under control was provided by an upbeat message from the Health authority. Here the message was that measures were adequate, all contact traced cases monitored and no new case was reported within a certain timeframe. Many had their guard down. Senior officials in the government of Liberia mocked the very existence of Ebola. There were doubts in public circle, fueled by talk show hosts on some radio stations.

During this period of lull, there was one voice, ignored, the MSF warning that the disease was getting out of control.

A man monitored by the health authority boarded a flight to Nigeria where he was later diagnosed with the Ebola virus. The man was under surveillance by the Liberia Ministry of Health. In the US, a wife and a mother mourned their lost. In Liberia, a President angered, charged the deceased with indiscipline.

Yet this is not a time to deal with the counterfactual, since it must be left for the Ebola aftermath, the period when the Ebola is completely eradicated. Then the question about coordination between the different arms of the State can be addressed, about poor enforcement of already existing public health law that made it possible for a person under surveillance to board a plane.

The Storm

The WHO has declared the Ebola epidemic a global health emergency. Hopefully this is expected to trigger a number of measures, among them, the mobilization of needed medical support and expertise to help the worst effected countries stem the further spread and contain the virus.

Liberia has declared a State of Emergency, and ‘quarantined’ some of the most affected regions, with the deployment of the military.

Some governments have issued travel adversary against non-essential travel to Liberia. Some airlines have suspended their flights to Liberia.

A number of international experts and advisors are among the first on the plane out, concern about the risks of the spread of the Ebola Virus Disease and the weak capacity of the Liberian State to respond. These will be the first with the loudest voice in terms of advice on various government policies and strategies, hopefully, in the not too distant post-Ebola future.

The MSF announce the establishment of additional treatment facility for persons infected with the Ebola Virus Disease.

These measures cannot afford to be too little and too late.

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of the Ebola, that period of time when Ebola is completely eradicated from Liberia, there will be plenty of lessons to be learnt.

At the centre may be the importance of a people’s trust in their government. Where this trust has been broken, the people seem to ignore messages from the government and listen to messages of their own, a failure to listen to well- intended messages that can have dangerous consequences. It will be how trust can be rebuilt, and how central this trust is to enforce government authority and actions that may be a defining lesson.

Trust building can better be enhanced by accountability chain at all levels of actions and inaction in society…where failure may lead to personal responsibility. Trust cannot be enhanced by a system of patronage that shields individuals from responsibility.

There may be a question about the international community understanding about the situation in these poor post-conflict regions of the world. International response may need to be escalated and should come more rapidly in regions where fragility means weakened systems in health care that can offer little resistance to severe external shock, such as posed by Ebola.

The robustness of the systems for basic social services should not be replaced by topical and fancy top down ‘state-building’ measures and reforms: New Deal, decentralization, public financial management, to name a few. A big hole has been dealt in this theory of change that put basic needs as secondary consequence.

In concluding, it is important to leave with few messages from the Centre for Disease Control regarding Ebola prevention: ‘You can’t get Ebola through water; You can’t get through food; you can only get Ebola from touching bodily fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola, or from exposure to contaminated objects, such as needles’.

Charles Lawrence holds a Master of Arts in Human Rights and Conflict Management from the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa Italy, and works as National Programme Officer for Democratic Governance and Human Rights at the Embassy of Sweden in Liberia.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed represent those of the writer and not any entity of which he is associated.

Coming back to Sierra Leone at the end of June and traveling on to Liberia in July, I’ve seen a big change.  There have been hundreds of deaths, and people are definitely taking the issue more seriously now.

The virus is primarily spread by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, so one of the precautions advised is to not shake hands with people. But I’m finding that very hard in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  We shake hands with everyone we meet.  A driver told me, “I carry all kinds of people in my car.  My children are playing with all kinds of children and then we all sit together at home.  What can I do?”  I was sitting in a crowded public transport vehicle in the Red Light neighborhood, just outside Monrovia the other day, waiting for the vehicle to fill with passengers so we could leave.  A vendor came by, hawking green garden gloves, boasting that they could be used to prevent Ebola. People around me laughed.

It’s only in the last few days that I now see hand-washing stations outside government ministries and some NGOs (though not all).  It seems a little futile when the same people go out to eat in the same cook shops with the same shared utensils.


Outside the Ministry of Education in Monrovia

Outside the Ministry of Education in Monrovia


Education about the virus and how it spreads is now seen as the main public health task.  In “West Africa:  Misconceptions Fuel Ebola Outbreak”A UNICEF spokesman explains, “Some people still deny that the disease is real. Others believe that it doesn’t have to be treated.” The article goes on to explain that, “Widespread misconception, resistance, denial and occasional hostility in some communities are considerably complicating the humanitarian response to contain the outbreak.”  I’m reminded of what I heard in West Africa in the nineties, that AIDS stands for “American Invention to Destroy Sex.”  There is a long history of lament that Africans don’t believe what we’re telling them about their own health crises, cries of we need more education! Ignorance is the biggest enemy!


On a teacher’s door in Monrovia

On a teacher’s door in Monrovia


On the wall of a bank in Freetown

On the wall of a bank in Freetown


In Monrovia, I was told that there have been real impacts on the health system.  People are afraid to go to the hospital and health workers are refusing to treat people.  So, I was told, even a small sickness can kill you because there is no one to treat you.  (See “Fighting Ebola ‘by the Grace of God’” detailing panicked health workers in Liberia abandoning their work stations.)

The coverage I’ve heard on the BBC and elsewhere focuses on how dangerous it is for people not to comply, and experts decry the ignorance of people who don’t understand that these actions are for the health of the population as a whole.  Sierra Leonean firebrand, and special assistant to the President, Sylvia Blyden, makes the point that it is not only uneducated rural people who are acting this way.  Even people in the more cosmopolitan capital are fighting against the public health restrictions. She recently posted on Facebook:

Esteemed members of SIERRA LEONE ISSUES, well the “gullible” people are not only in Kissi Teng, Kailahun. Tonight, credible reports are that a suspected Ebola patient has escaped from Isolation at PCMH Cottage [Hospital], Fourah Bay Rd. in Freetown with help of her friends and family. She was reportedly admitted in isolation whilst waiting for her test results from Ebola lab in Kenema. Well, to cut a long story short, she was forcibly removed from the Isolation room and then, was put onboard an okada motorbike and whisked off to her residence somewhere in Freetown. One of the nurses on duty was seriously SLAPPED for attempting to stop the escape.

Enti na Kissi Teng, Kailahun, some bin day cuss “munku” and “gullible”? [In English:  Isn’t it true that in Kissi Teng, Kailahun, some people were cursing people for their lack of exposure and gullibility?]

I feel like a lot of the coverage of the Ebola crisis has been about the heroic health workers and the ignorant locals.  I don’t dispute the heroism of the health workers, but I do want to dispute the ignorance of the locals.  People on radio call in shows have asked: Why can’t they understand what needs to be done?  Why they need to submit themselves and their loved ones to quarantine?  When someone has the symptoms—fever, vomiting, diarrhea—they are supposed to report to the health center, where they will be taken away from family, and if they die, be buried by men in protective gear with no family present.  You can see why people might be loath to turn over their loved ones. Really who among us would want to turn a sick loved one over to a hospital staffed with foreigners, knowing we might never see them again?  And hospitals in this part of the world have notoriously poor service.  Families routinely have to prepare meals and bring them to patients.  Families have to go to local pharmacies to buy drugs and even gloves or needles from India or Nigeria because hospital storerooms are routinely not stocked. People’s apprehensions about the failings of the healthcare system come from experience, not from ignorance.

At least some commentators have pointed out that this crisis really reveals people’s mistrust of the state, that’s why they don’t do what they’re told. One expert on a BBC call-in program explained this was understandable in the aftermath of war.  I would argue that it’s far deeper than that.  It’s not just the war that caused this mistrust.  The mistrust existed long before.  Furthermore, the issue is more than people ignoring public health warnings from the state. People believe that the state is actually out to get them; more precisely, that “big men” are using the apparatus to of the state to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people, sometimes at the expense of their lives.

Some folks standing outside JFK Hospital in Monrovia told me that there is a spray, a chemical spray, that if they say you have Ebola, they spray it on you and that’s what actually kills you.  They explained that the health ministry is using it so they can report more deaths from Ebola and get more money.  They said the government already got $1.8 million in March so they know there is money in it.

A friend recounted a story that in one of the poor neighborhoods some group was giving vaccinations against Ebola (“But there is no vaccine,” I protest.  “Doesn’t matter.  People don’t know that,” he replies.)  He says two babies died almost immediately after receiving the shots, and the medical team vanished afterwards, now no one knows who gave the shots.  “Someone must have been poisoning the children to make it look like more Ebola deaths!”  This is an unsubstantiated rumor, but the important thing is how the rumor was spread by average, even well educated, people like my friend.  He said that people think it is someone in or near the government who is getting rich off of the money that is coming into the country to battle the epidemic, and wants the situation to continue to look dire.  When I sounded doubtful, my friend gave further evidence.  He told me that the Chief Accountant at the Ministry of Health was preparing to make a report to the donors of how all the Ebola response money given to the government had been spent so far.  The evening before the presentation he was badly beaten by thugs, and they took all the paperwork away from him and nothing else.  Clearly, my friend argued, someone has something to hide!

So, is this a case of ignorance?  Or do these beliefs tell us something more? I think the rumors reveal something about the nature of the state here and people’s so-called contract with it.  The state has acted in just such a vampiric fashion in the past, feeding off of the misery of its citizens, and likely will continue to do so. They are not responding out of ignorance, but again I would argue, out of long experience.

Susan Shepler is Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University in Washington DC.  She is currently conducting Spencer Foundation funded research in Liberia and Sierra Leone on connections between Western education, the state, and armed conflict.

Since 2001, Jos, Nigeria is internationally known for intermittent bursts of violent, inter-religious conflict. In addition, for the past several years Nigeria has faced terror attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram, what many would call the worst violent crisis since independence. On 20 May 2014, two bombs went off in the center of Jos, killing at least 118 people and injuring 56 more. The area targeted was Terminus Market, arguably the busiest and most densely populated location in town, a market used by all ethnic groups and by Christians and Muslims alike.

I’ve been living in Jos this past year, researching connections between formal education, the state, and armed conflict and lecturing at the university whenever classes are in session. In the course of my normal activities, I pass the location of the bomb blasts several times a week. The Nigerian government seems unwilling to describe what is happening as a war, but I lived through the tail end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and this fear, these checkpoints, it feels a lot like a war to me. Actually, not knowing where or when the next bomb blast will occur feels worse (to me) than living in war.

Now, over a month after the bomb blasts, the news media has moved on to covering the more recent bomb blasts in Abuja and Bauchi. (See Nigeria Security Tracker (http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-security-tracker/p29483 ) for a complete analysis of the staggering number of violent attacks). The world is not focused on Jos anymore, but Jos is still feeling the impact of the bombs.

During my time here I’ve heard lots of stories of how Jos was before the crisis, or indeed even earlier, in the seventies and eighties. I have only known the Jos that is recovering from conflict, skittishly holding on to a fragile peace. Even before the recent bombing, one of my friends refused to go with me to a film screening at the Alliance Française, saying, “We don’t really go to places where large numbers of people will be gathered.” My group of Sierra Leonean ex-pat drinking buddies canceled our regular Friday hang out because they didn’t want to travel “in these uncertain times.”

“This hold up na war – O”

How has everyday life changed in Jos? The biggest impact felt in daily life is in the area of mobility. There is ongoing massive road construction which snarls up traffic regularly. There are newly set up informal and formal road blocks all around town. And the police have severely restricted parking in town, so the shop keepers are suffering from a lack of customers. And now the state government is trying to stop street trading at Terminus Market (http://www.premiumtimesng.com/regional/164675-jos-explosions-plateau-set-to-enforce-ban-on-street-trading.html )

Violent attacks have happened around the state during my time in town, but they are what are known as “Fulani herdsmen” attacks, all rural, and apparently not a threat to people in town. But nobody really knows what’s behind those attacks. Are they simply bandits? Are they backed by certain politicians? Are the security forces involved? The security forces say they are protecting us, and then one hears rumors of army men behind village attacks. We just don’t know. Even about Boko Haram, we don’t know. The Jos conflict has been high jacked and used by so many for so many reasons for so long, one simply does not know what is happening. This is not just the ignorance of the foreign researcher. My Nigerian colleagues are also analytically frustrated by the complexity and secrecy of recent violent events.

For example, although the powers that be agree that the bombings in the market are most likely the work of Boko Haram, also circulating in Jos is the belief that the bombings are just a continuation of the Jos crisis. That is, local powerful people of some political stripe or another stand to profit somehow from continued insecurity. There is also the story circulating that a soldier in the nearby Rukuba barracks, a munitions expert, warned a women not to go to Terminus market that morning. She later praised him for saving her life, but suspicious Nigerians see proof that the military knows more than it’s saying.

Mythologies of security
In the face of such insecurity and ignorance we turn to the magical power of security technology. After the mall bomb blast in Abuja, the cry went up: “Why aren’t the CCTV cameras working?” As if CCTV could have prevented anything. One night in Abuja, after an evening of Star beer and “point and kill” catfish, we went into “the villa” (the Nigerian Presidential Complex) so one of our group could drop off his laptop. On our way out, he pointed out big white trucks parked on the sidewalk. He claimed there were machines inside the trucks that could scan us down to our underwear as defuse any bomb we were carrying as we drove past. I kept to myself my doubts that any such technology exists.

What’s the score?
One last vignette: Watching the World Cup match between Nigeria and Argentina in a local beer parlour the night of an Abuja bombing. People around us are looking at their smart phones for the group standings to see who will advance, sharing the numbers with neighboring tables. People are simultaneously looking at their smart phones for the number killed in Abuja, sharing the number with neighboring tables. I have the troubling sensation that these two tournaments are somehow parallel, as Boko Haram and the Nigerian government tally up numbers killed in an ongoing daily contest, where the lives of ordinary Nigerians are the dirt beneath their feet.

Susan Shepler is an Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., U.S.A. She spent the past ten months as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos in Plateau State, Nigeria.

First posted June 13, 2014

This week has seen a flurry of activity around an issue that for far too long has been forgotten, silenced or viewed as an inevitable consequence of war: sexual violence in conflict.

London has been the centre of activity, where hundreds of politicians, activists, researchers, campaigners, care providers and, most importantly, survivors of sexual violence gathered for the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict conference.

All of this is extremely important – but in the rush to ‘do something’ about the horrific crimes being committed in Syria, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and other conflict zones, we should not forget some basic premises.

These may seem self-evident, but are often not addressed when discussing sexual violence in conflict: sexual violence needs to be seen in the broader context of violently unequal power positions; sexual violence does not only occur in conflict or only in societies affected by violent conflict.

Furthermore, we in the ‘Global North’ often play a major direct and indirect role, either by our actions or inaction, in perpetuating the situations which can lead to violence.

The painful truth that most perpetrators of these monstrous acts are in fact not monsters, but otherwise ‘normal’ members of society, products of gender norms and expectations which we all play a role in constructing.

First, while it is extremely important to highlight sexual violence against women, men, boys, girls and gender minorities in violent conflict, shining the light on one issue always risks leaving other issues in the dark. In focusing on sexual violence in violent conflict, we should not forget that it usually occurs in the context of other violence: of murder, mutilation, torture, arson, forced displacement, exclusion and other forms of direct and structural violence.

These forms of violence are embedded in broader systems of oppression and exploitation. We must not fall into the trap of advocating merely for a more ‘sanitised’ version of war that continues to be horrifically violent – just minus the sexual violence.

Second, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing sexual violence as only happening in war zones. In war as in peace, intimate partner violence continues, and the perpetrators of sexual violence are not only militias, militaries and guerrillas, but spouses, partners, neighbours and family members.

A recent, disturbing EU report on gender-based violence speaks volumes in this respect, as do misogynist crimes committed by the likes of Elliot Rodgers.

According to An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, published in 2013 by the UK Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and Home Office (ONS):

• Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year; • Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year; • One in five women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.

According to the ONS, around a tenth of reported cases of sexual violence were against men and boys – though it must be noted that under-reporting may be even more of an issue here than in the case of women and girls.

Sexual violence is an issue we need to address here as well, and across the European Union, austerity measures have severely hit funding for projects on sexual and domestic violence, with UK shelters reporting that they have had to turn survivors back.

While the concern for sexual violence ‘out there’ is necessary, it rings hollow when simultaneously funding is cut for programmes and shelters of domestic and sexual violence at home.

These two points bring us to the third one: what role do we collectively as the Global North – our governments, banks, private sector companies, media, religious institutions, and NGOs – play in perpetuating the dynamics in which sexual violence occurs in conflict? What is our direct and indirect culpability?

This questioning in no way reduces the culpability of the perpetrators, but rather widens the net and raises necessary, uncomfortable and complex questions. We continue to sell weapons to states and non-state actors in conflict zones; we consume minerals and resources from these zones and we continue to give political and financial support to state and non-state actors without demanding an end to impunity – unless it is politically expedient for us.

Which brings us lastly to the perpetrators: although their crimes are horrific, we need to overcome the facile temptations of seeing them merely as demons, monsters or barbarians. More often than not, they and the people backing them are ‘regular’ people, not maniacs or sociopaths – and that is the truly unsettling issue.

Sometimes, it can also be difficult to draw the lines between perpetrators and victims: where does a son stand who is forced at gun point to rape his father, mother or sister?

Let us be clear, though, that understanding the dynamics does in no way mean condoning the deeds or lessening the perpetrators culpability. But labelling them simply as ‘deviant monsters’ is the easy way out, for it does not force us to look long and hard in the mirror as individuals and as societies and ask ourselves: what it is about our values and our actions and inactions that abets such crimes? All of these issues are on the table in London, and though the impact of a single conference should not be exaggerated, it is already a milestone that sexual violence is being debated at this level. However, no-one is served by an over-simplification of the issues. The issue is far too serious for that.

We, as being directly or indirectly part of the systems that have allowed sexual violence to occur, owe it to the survivors to engage with these uncomfortable questions.

Henri Myrttinen is Senior researcher on gender issues for the peacebuilding organisation International Alert

A new report by International Alert aims to give a more nuanced understanding of the links between gender and peace. You can read the report here.

FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD JATU stood under a dull October sky on the stoop of her zinc-roofed, one-room concrete shack in New Kru Town, one of the poorest communities in Monrovia. Chubby teenage schoolgirls approached, in green tunics and with neatly braided hair, their black shoes clicking against the dusty, uneven road. Jatu’s tank top scooped across her breasts and heavily padded bra—what locals call an “iron-titty bra”—and her skin-tight leggings sat low across her buttocks, revealing her butt crack—her “junction,” as it is known in “colloqui,” or Liberian English. Jatu has fine cheekbones and brown eyes, framed by close-cropped hair—she wears it this way because she cannot afford to get it braided. As the girls passed, she turned away to hide the scars carved into the left side of her face, neck and shoulders, reminders of when she was mowed down by a taxi at the age of eight. The driver abandoned the car and fled, leaving Jatu for dead.

Since then, Jatu’s life has been shaped by a series of injustices that are quotidian for many girls in Liberia. This small West African nation, ravaged by civil war through the 1990s and early 2000s, is one of the poorest in the world—the European Commission estimates that over half the population lives in extreme poverty, on less than $0.50 a day. Born to a single mother with two other children, in a poor riverside community near New Kru Town called Crab Hole, Jatu told me she left home voluntarily at age eleven after sensing she was a burden on her family. Unable to pay tuition fees, she dropped out of school and moved in with an older friend, who soon took her to a club where they met a couple of “boys.” Together, they danced to pounding music, sipped beers, and then parted. Jatu’s friend said she would meet her at a nearby street junction, but disappeared. As Jatu walked out onto a dark road, she was met by two of the boys, who said they had paid her friend to “have” her. Before she could argue, they dragged her behind a car and raped her.

That was Jatu’s first taste of life on the street. Back then she was “forced,” but soon she started to “willingly” barter her body—“cut jopu,” as the locals say—on the road, in bars and in nightclubs, for goods or a little money, sometimes less than a dollar a session. For a time, she lived with nine other girls in a tiny room, kept by an older woman who took a cut of her earnings, and sent what money she could to her mother. Jatu now works independently, and pays “gronna boys”—street hustlers—for protection. She still sends money to her family.

There is no reliable count of underage prostitutes such as Jatu in Monrovia, but the police say the number of these “short-time” girls is rising. Unlike in many developing countries, where children are trafficked and forced into sex work by crime syndicates, many Liberian girls are encouraged to cut jopu by their families and friends, among whom their work is an open but largely unspoken secret. Most of the girls I spoke to continued to live with their families, contributing money they claimed came from an “uncle” or “friend.” This tacit acceptance of underage prostitution is driven partly by economic need, but is also rooted in certain aspects of the local culture. Liberia’s patriarchal norms mean women and girls are expected to take the lead in supporting households even though they wield less social power, and many romantic and sexual relations in the country today are transactional. As Butterfly, a local hip-hop artist, raps in a popular song referring to her “apple”—“you take it you pay.”

Sitting in her small office in Congo Town, a relatively affluent part of the city, Korto Williams, the country director of ActionAid, an organisation that promotes women’s rights, spoke of a pervasive “culture of the sugar daddy.” According to Williams, Liberia has a long history of fetishising and abusing young girls, who were, in the past, often married off to older men soon after they reached puberty. Before the civil war, it was common for well-off families to take on girls from remote villages as domestic workers, usually on the promise of paying for their education. Under such arrangements, these girls were often also forced to have sex with the man of the house, and sent back home if they became pregnant. During the war, many young girls became “girlfriends” of generals and soldiers in exchange for food, material goods and protection. Today, Williams said, the legacy of sexual violence during the war has become an excuse for widespread abuse of girls and women. The problem exists in homes, on the streets, and even in schools. In a recent study commissioned jointly by the government and several international NGOs, 18 percent of girls and 13 percent of boys reported having been asked for sex by their teachers in exchange for better grades. Three-quarters of boys and almost a quarter of girls agreed that “men are superior to women,” and almost half the boys and about a third of the girls agreed that “sexual violence and abuse is a normal part of man-woman relations.”

In recent years the Liberian government has tried to address underage prostitution. Under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2006 became Africa’s first elected female head of state and jointly won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights, Liberia has launched several progressive policies to improve the lives of women and girls and reduce sexual violence. With assistance from international donors, a Women and Children’s Protection Section was established within the Liberian National Police in 2005. It now has almost two hundred staff in fifty-four units across all of Liberia’s fifteen counties. In 2006, the country adopted a national plan of action against sexual and gender-based violence, meant to provide healthcare to survivors of assault, speed up the legal response to rape cases, and provide safe homes and support services for abused women and girls. Two years later, a special court was established to try cases of sexual violence under some of the strongest rape laws in Africa, which punish statutory rape—defined as any instance of a person over the age of eighteen having sex with a person under that age—with life imprisonment.

But many activists question the impact of these laws and policies. The special court has completed just eighteen trials in the last four years, with only a handful of convictions. Last year it completed only five trials, and dismissed 93 percent of the cases brought before it citing administrative and investigative inefficiency. The scale of underage rape in Liberia remains staggering. According to figures from the Ministry of Gender and Development, in 2012, 68 percent of reported rape cases involved victims between the ages of three months and fourteen years. In 2011, three quarters of the perpetrators in reported cases were relatives, friends, neighbours or intimate partners of the survivors.

While much of the abuse goes on behind closed doors, underage prostitution is impossible to ignore. Monrovia has a high, and growing, number of corners, hotels and nightspots notorious for hosting young girls and their customers. The police’s failure to tackle the problem is as conspicuous as the prostitution itself. Occasional raids have only created fear of the police among many girls, who saw these as efforts to “chase” them away, and not to help. When she was twelve, Jatu was forced to have sex with an officer who helped retrieve some money owed to her by a customer. She offered to pay him, but “the policeman say I not pay but he must have me.” Other girls complained of being robbed by the police, and chose to avoid them rather than report cases of abuse. “You carry that case to the police station that a dead case,” Jatu’s friend Naomi, who is also fourteen, said. “You yourself will go in jail.” Despite official efforts at rape education, very few of the girls I met understood the concept of statutory rape or knew where to turn for help. For most, cutting jopu remained simply “business.”

In the face of these problems, and given the lack of other employment options, helping Liberia’s short-time girls is especially difficult. Sitting in her dimly lit office behind Monrovia’s rundown police headquarters late last year, Vera K Manly, the head of the Women and Children’s Protection Section, told me rehabilitation remained a major obstacle. “If you are taking the child from the street, the child must go through some processes … to stop them from going further in the streets,” she said. While there are plans to build a national safe home for these girls, currently the government has only three safe homes, all in Monrovia, which have, at most, the capacity to house girls for a few days at a time. Beside these factors, Manly said, solving the problem will also require a change in cultural attitudes that permit men “to have sex with small girls.”

One afternoon, I joined Jatu and Naomi (whose names have been changed for their protection) in Jatu’s shack as they prepared rice and soup for lunch. “My ma born me but my ma passed away,” Naomi said, and added that she didn’t know where her father was. With no one to care for her, Naomi turned to “short time” when she was twelve, with the help of a thirteen-year-old friend. She said she had never been tested for HIV, and that “I don’t believe that AIDS is real.” Unlike other girls, who call cutting jopu “business,” Naomi described the work as “rape.” She also defined statutory rape: “when the person force you against your will and you too small.” Staring at a blackened coal pot with dour, dark eyes, she told me she saw no other way to earn a living. Jatu and Naomi earn from 100 to 150 Liberian dollars from each customer. They make, at most, 450 Liberian dollars —roughly $5— for a day’s work. “You sit down and say, oh when you do not do this one you will not eat,” Naomi said.

Jatu had little hope of help or change. One night in November, I saw her join another girl for a night of work in a club beside St Paul Bridge, which lies between New Kru Town and Crab Hole. Jatu covered her scars with a scarf and joined her friend to dance under huge, booming speakers. They kept their faces turned down as young men edged toward them, and carefully avoided eye contact.

Clair MacDougall is a writer based in Monrovia. Her report in this issue is funded in part by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, and is part of a transnational investigation into violence against women in Africa.

“Anarchy”, “religious war”, “genocide” and, recently, “cannibalism” – these are some of the most commonly used words in Western news media when referring to the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR), at least since the takeover of power by the rebel coalition Séléka in March 2013. The conflict, which in December alone resulted in approximately one thousand deaths, has uprooted one-fifth of CAR’s population. This conflict was by and large a consequence of former rebel leaders’ and some of their soldiers’ lack of future prospects within the troubled political-economy of the country. It is not easy to control military forces during a war – even less so after a war, when the minimum unifier (typically, regime change) has been achieved. In many cases, this is when the real problems start, as interests begin to diverge and promises made by the politicians to the fighters are not kept. This is very much the case in CAR.

Séléka was disbanded after the coup when its leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself the new interim president of CAR. The coalition subsequently fell apart and began carrying out atrocities and looting Bangui and its surroundings with impunity, as they felt Djotodia was still indebted to them. In reaction to the violence and by and large to protect itself, the population founded self-defence groups collectively referred to as anti-balaka (“anti-machete”). While Séléka is predominantly Muslim, they have never targeted people because of their faith. It is thus slightly surprising that anti-balaka, at least in Bangui, have used their Christian faith as a common denominator and targeted Muslims. Perhaps it is a strategy to draw sympathy from the West; it is certainly the key reason why Western media currently label the conflict “religious”. This is clearly an oversimplification…..


The full text is available in Africa Spectrum (Vol 49, No 1 (2014)) as open access http://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/giga/afsp/article/view/715/713

A popularized version is also available in the Danish Journal Udvikling (Vol 41, No 2 (2014)) as open access http://ipaper.ipapercms.dk/Udenrigsministeriet/Udvikling/2014/Udvikling214/?Page=48

And previously on Bistandsaktuelt website (in Norwegian) http://www.bistandsaktuelt.no/kommentar/arkiv-kommentarer/religionskrig-folkemord-kannibalisme





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