While the world’s attention and outrage was focused on India, where a student had been gang-raped in December and would eventually die, a Liberian girl was laid to rest after years of suffering from a rape when she was seven years old. Liberia’s Gender Ministry did what they could to make an issue of Olivia Zinnah’s death, paying for her funeral and sending staff there to speak to the media. But aside from a newspaper story and a few radio reports, there was little attention paid to the 14-year-old’s death, even though she was the fourth girl in Liberia to die in 2012 from rape-related injuries.
For the crime against Olivia, the rapist escaped justice, a common outcome in Liberia. Often, say Gender Ministry officials, victims’ families accept payment from the assailant or his family. Deputy gender minister Annette Kiawu said it doesn’t appear such a payment was made to Olivia’s family, but the suspected rapist, a relative of the girl, was not reported to the police. Olivia, suffering from severe internal injuries, then a systemic infection, received only traditional healing, which can include herbs and spells, for three years.
It was only when an uncle visited and saw her looking terrible – “almost decomposed from the infection,” he said – that any action was taken. The man, Lawrence Samuel, asked what happened to Olivia, and was told by women in the family she’d been raped three years earlier. Samuel took Olivia to hospital and reported the crime to police and the gender ministry. The suspect was arrested but released without going to court, under circumstances which ministry officials are still attempting to sort out.
Olivia received multiple surgeries, including two colostomies. “We did everything we could to save her,” said Gender Minister Julia Duncan Cassell.
Kiawu took an active role in Olivia’s case. “For her it was difficult,” Kiawu said. “She always had an urge to want to play like the other children. You would see her once in a while laughing, or trying to jump around. She used to smile every now and then.”
But seven years after the rape, Olivia developed another infection. She died a week before Christmas.
Child rape is epidemic in Liberia. Doctors Without Borders (DWB) in 2011 reported that 92 per cent of females treated for rape in its facilities here were under 18. A DWB study published in November said that of about 1,500 females treated in Monrovia clinics in 2008 and 2009 after rape, four out of 10 were younger than 12 and one in 10 were younger than 5. “Half the survivors were children aged 13 years or younger and included infants and toddlers,” the report said.
Although some believe the sexual violence here is connected to widespread rape during Liberia’s years of civil war that ended a decade ago, Cassell says the causes are more complex. Poverty leads victims’ families to accept payoffs instead of reporting rapes, leading to impunity for rapists. The ostracizing of people who report rape (Olivia and her mother were shunned by their family after Samuel reported the crime, Cassell says) also deters reporting and fosters impunity. Poor education limits the ability of men and male youths to understand the harm caused by rape, Cassell says. High teen-pregnancy rates mean many mothers lack knowledge and awareness to protect daughters from predators.
For a few days after Olivia’s funeral, as protesters clashed violently with police in India over the woman’s gang-rape there, I kept hoping for a wider reaction here. But there were no angry commentaries in the media. There were no protest marches. There were no candlelight vigils. Nothing happened. The suffering child who used to smile now and then is just another dead girl in the ground.