“I was raped during the war by three men. I live with two stigmas: of rape and of HIV.” Although Benetta describes the situation of thousands of Liberian women, her determination to break the silence around these difficult issues, sets her apart.
“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 to address violence and HIV, Benetta is helping to confront violations of women's rights in Liberia, and the stigma such violations can bring. With support from the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, the project is being implemented in Liberia's south-eastern counties. The twin pandemics are rampant in these largely rural areas, exacerbated by poverty, discriminatory traditional justice systems, and low awareness of protection laws and what constitutes violence against women.
Making the link
Rape and other forms of violence were widely used as weapons of war during Liberia's 15-year civil conflict. Violence was embedded in traditional norms and behaviour acquired during the war, and it 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, traditions and patriarchal power structures hinder their implementation, especially in the remote counties of Grand Gedeh and River Gee in south-east Liberia. As observed by a 2012 joint study on rural women and the Millennium Development Goals, women in remote areas worldwide who experience violence are also less likely to access help or services, even if they are available.
Violence is one of the drivers of HIV, particularly for young women, and those aged 15-24 are three times more likely to be HIV-positive than men of the same age. There is, however, little awareness of this critical link.
Using a holistic approach, Action Aid helps traditional leaders, law enforcement and health care workers build their capacities to respond to survivors' needs. The project has assisted in establishing a much-needed safe-house in Zwedru, in Grand Gedeh County. It 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,” recalls 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. “Action Aid has been instrumental in ensuring that cases of gender-based violence are handled,” comments 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 engages people and communities affected by HIV and AIDS and those living with HIV; they respond to the pandemic through mutual reflection, analysis, planning and joint action. With this approach it has trained 40 young women and men from six communities to facilitate STAR circles, which now reach over 700 community members, especially youth.
As Deetta Jolo, a STAR Circle facilitator in Grand Gedeh, acknowledges: “Rape used to be high in our community, but cases were usually not reported.” Meanwhile, traditional conflict resolution practices can also often undermine women's rights. But change is happening. “Since the intervention and other trainings, rape cases are reported, with evidence to convict the perpetrators,” Deetta affirms.
Another STAR Circle facilitator, Agnes Wesseh, a 26-year-olf mother of four, 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 session on women's rights in my community. Afterwards, 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.”
Managed by UN Women on behalf of the UN system, the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women is a leading source of support for innovative projects, to combat one of the most pressing issues of our time.