"I was only 14 years old when he raped me"

09. Sep 2019
Rikke Hovn Poulsen

Beatrice is one of the thousands of girls and women who experience violence and rape in Liberia every year. Every single number in those statistics hides a tragic story like hers. 

The dark room smells of opium – and of the men who spend the night here, taking drugs. Beatrice faintly sees the outlines of mattresses on the floor. Right now, she is alone, and the door is locked from the outside. It would not help to scream.

Terrified, Beatrice wonders: "Will he kill me? Will I die in here?"

The man comes in. He is handsome, in his early twenties, but there is something disturbing about him. He works as a hairdresser, and she met him for the first time shortly before Christmas, when he did her hair. He told her he was in love with her, and promised her good clothes and beautiful things if she went home with him. But she did not want to have anything to do with him. She was 14 years old, and he was an adult.

He has stalked her many times since then – waiting for her outside her home, trying to entice her to come with him. But every time she managed to run away. Until now.

Early this morning, when she was on her way to visit her aunt, he caught her off guard and pulled her away. He forced her into the dark room and locked her in. 

"I want to have sex with you,” he told her. “You will not come out before you say yes."

Macho culture in Liberia

Liberia is one of the world's poorest countries, and macho culture prevails. A bloody civil war raged from 1989 to 2003, in which more then a quarter million people lost their lives – out of a population of less than five million. The war was especially hard on women, with rape widely used as a weapon of war.

Today, nobody knows exactly how common rape remains – but everyone agrees that it is a huge problem. Of all serious crimes, it is the most often reported to the police, and many rapes are never reported because the victim is afraid of the perpetrator or his family, or afraid of being excluded by the community. A survey in 2008 found that 83 percent of Liberians believe a rape victim herself is partly to blame – maybe she was provocatively dressed, or led the man on.

Other studies among school children show that half of all boys believe that violence against women and sexual violence are a normal part of a relationship. Unfortunately, many of the girls agree: violence and rape are part of everyday life, and that’s just the way it is.

The floor turns red

The man keeps Beatrice locked in the dark room all day. Now and then he passes by and looks in on her. She searches for something to defend herself with – a weapon, a stick of some sort. But there is nothing.

Beatrice does not know exactly what the man wants to do with her body, because no-one has told her about sex. But he is too strong and she is afraid he will kill her if she fights him.

In the evening she gives up and surrenders to her destiny.

"It is up to God. I have no chance," she thinks.

Her blood colours the floor red when he rapes her.

I'll kill you if you tell

When the man has finished, he throws her out.

"If you tell anyone about this," he threatens, "I'll kill you and your family."

Beatrice walks home crying. She meets her mother, who is out looking for her, and she tries to control herself, wiping her eyes and holding back her tears. She remembers his words: tell no one. Fortunately, Beatrice's mother is not fooled. She has been troubled for many hours, waiting for her daughter, and she can see that something’s wrong.

"Where have you been?" she asks.

"Visiting auntie," Beatrice lies.

She refuses to tell her mother what has happened, and eventually they go home to sleep.

All that Beatrice can think that night is: "I just hope I'm not getting sick. I just hope I'm not getting sick”.

In the morning, the mother goes to find the aunt, who explains that Beatrice never visited her the day before. Then everything spirals. The mother takes her daughter to the police station. During the interrogation, the 14-year-old girl breaks down and tells all about the confinement, rape and threats.

The mother holds Beatrice close, trying to console her: "He forced you, it's not your fault. You must not give up. You're just as valuable as before." 

The verdict falls

Unfortunately for girls like Beatrice, Liberia's system of law and justice is ineffective at responding to violence against women and girls. Less than four percent of rape charges end with a sentence. 

Partly this is about lack of money and resources. Too few police officers are assigned to combating violence against women, and they struggle for everything from pens to petrol for their motorbikes. They are so poorly paid that the perpetrators often succeed in bribing their way out of criminal charges.

But it is also about prioritization. While violence against women is sometimes an issue in national debate, little is done to change policy and practice – or to enforce the law.

Last but not least, it is about traditions. Alongside the official judicial system, a traditional system exists in which disputes are mediated by the head of the village or other local leaders. Many families prefer to use this system, which can make sense for minor disagreements – but in cases of violence against women, the 'judgments' rarely fall in the woman's favour. A rape may end with a small fine on the perpetrator – or nothing at all if the chief thinks it was the woman's own fault.

After Beatrice has spoken to the police, they send her to the hospital. Here she meets Florence Vemis, a social worker employed by Oxfam's local partner Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI). Florence initially supports the family to conduct a lawsuit: she provides advice and guidance, and follows up with the authorities. Then FCI helps them financially while the case is on.

"Beatrice was deeply traumatized when I met her for the first time,” says Florence. “I tried to help her and her family through the process. It is incredibly difficult for the victims in such cases, and often they feel that they are standing alone in the world."

The trial takes place in Zwedru, the nearest big town. Beatrice stays with relatives there.

"It was a tough time, but I coped with it because I knew that what he did to me was wrong. I wanted justice," Beatrice explained afterwards.

And something happened that almost never happens in Liberia: the perpetrator was sentenced to four years in prison.

"It made me really happy. He seriously earned that judgment," she says.

A role model for other women

When Beatrice returns home after the trial, she keeps to herself. She is afraid of the man’s family, who live in the area. And one day they turn up at her home.

"You sent our son to prison," they say threateningly.

Beatrice stops going to school. She does not want to meet anyone she knows, because everyone has heard about the rape.

"I was very ashamed. Imagine being a little girl with such a problem," she says.

None of her friends want to have anything to do with her after what has happened.

"Don’t go near her, she's so young and still she knows about sex. She will teach you about it," they warn each other.

Florence Vemis again comes to the rescue, when she calls Beatrice to ask how she is getting on.

"You are not the only one it has happened to,” she says. “You have to return to school. Everything is going to be all right."

Florence visits Beatrice many times. They have long talks about what has happened, and it helps. With Florence’s help, Beatrice returns to school – and to life.

"She gave me courage to go out and meet the world again," says Beatrice.

It has now been a year since Beatrice was raped, and she still struggles every single day with the consequences. But her case is bringing hope for other women around Liberia. It stands out as one of the few rape cases that led to a verdict last year. It proves to everyone that men cannot always do what they want to women without being punished.

"I'm not giving up so easily,” Beatrice, now aged 15, says proudly. “One day in the future, I will be a doctor." 

FLOW stands with Liberia's women

ATTITUDES: Oxfam works to change social norms and attitudes towards violence against women. For example, we conduct campaigns on the radio, organize demonstrations, and go into small communities to help the women get organized and stand up for themselves.

EDUCATION: We educate hospital staff, judges and police so they know how to respond when they witness violence against women.

HELP FOR VICTIMS: Girls and women like Beatrice need support. We help them process their trauma and support them all the way through the judicial system – and to move on afterwards.

POLITICAL IMPACT: Oxfam helps to pave the way for new legislation. For example, there is now an Executive Order criminalizing domestic violence – and we’re supporting partners seeking to enshrine this in law.

PARTICIPATION: We are working to get more women to engage in politics, from local councils to parliament – among other things, because we know that female politicians are more likely to support women and women's interests. We support those who choose to stand so they can campaign fairly, on equal terms with men.