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Liberia

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape is illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and rape remained a serious and pervasive problem. The law’s definition of rape does not specifically criminalize spousal rape. Conviction of first-degree rape–defined as rape involving a minor, rape that results in serious injury or disability, or rape committed with the use of a deadly weapon–is punishable by up to life imprisonment. Conviction of second-degree rape, defined as rape committed without the aggravating circumstances enumerated above, is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

A specialized sexual violence court (Court E) has exclusive original jurisdiction over cases of sexual assault, including abuse of minors, but it was limited in effectiveness by having only one of two authorized judges presiding. According to the MGCSP, rape accounted for more than 60 percent of total SGBV cases reported. SGBV against persons younger than the age of 18 accounted for 77 percent of cases referred to the MGCSP. Observers believed the true incidence of statutory rape was even higher than the number of rape cases reported.

On August 5, a 13-year-old girl died after three of her male neighbors allegedly gang-raped her. The girl, who lived in a rural area, suffered from severe bleeding during a two-week period and died before her family could arrange transportation to the nearest health-care facility. The girl’s father told the press that his daughter was initially afraid to report the crime because the men threatened to kill her if she told anyone. Police arrested one of the alleged rapists, but as of September the remaining two suspects remained at large.

The government operated two shelters for SGBV victims, victims of trafficking in persons, and others in need of protection. The Sexual Pathways Referral Program, a combined initiative of the government and NGOs, improved access to medical, psychosocial, legal, and counseling assistance for victims. The MGCSP assigned a gender counselor to each county office to increase public awareness of SGBV crimes and refer victims to assistance. LNP officers received training on sexual offenses as part of their initial training.

An overtaxed justice system also prevented timely prosecution; delays in prosecution caused many victims to cease cooperating with prosecutors. Victims’ families sometimes requested money from the perpetrators as a form of redress because of mistrust in the formal justice system. Authorities often dropped cases due to a lack of evidence. The Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) of the LNP reported that courts dropped 50 percent of reported domestic violence cases due to lack of evidence. The ability to collect and preserve evidence of SGBV crimes was also insufficient. On April 10, UNMIL turned over a DNA analysis machine to the MGCSP to strengthen efforts to investigate and prosecute SGBV crimes.

The government raised awareness of rape through billboards, radio broadcasts, and other outreach campaigns. International organizations like The Carter Center and UN Women also engaged the public through awareness campaigns.

Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem. In October Front Page Africa reported that a man in Grand Bassa County was arrested for attempting to force himself onto his wife and beating her to death when she resisted. The maximum penalty for conviction of domestic violence is six months’ imprisonment, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. The WACPS received reports on 737 cases of domestic violence between January and July, a 32 percent increase above the 560 cases reported during the same period in 2017. Government and civil society officials suggested that enhanced awareness and confidence in reporting contributed to the increase, however, the number still only captured a fraction of domestic violence crimes committed.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): A 2013 UNICEF study estimated that 66 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C and the practice remains widespread. On January 19, then President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to protect women against domestic violence and prohibit FGM/C of all persons younger than age 18 and persons older than 18 without their consent. The executive order has the effect of law but is only valid for one year unless ratified by the legislature. Prior to the executive order, the government maintained that a 2011 law protecting children against all forms of violence also proscribes FGM/C, but the law did not specifically prohibit FGM/C. The penal code also prohibits causing bodily harm with a deadly weapon. No FGM/C perpetrators were prosecuted during the year.

There was movement toward limiting or prohibiting the practice of FGM/C. Government officials routinely engaged the public, specifically traditional leaders, to underscore the government’s commitment to eliminate FGM/C. The Ministry of Justice and the MGCSP, along with international partners and NGOs, advocated for legislation for an outright ban of FGM/C. The government routinely decried FGM/C in discussions of violence against women, although there remained political resistance to passing legislation criminalizing FGM/C because of the public sensitivity of the topic and its association with particular tribes in populous counties. NGO representatives stated there was little political will within the legislature to take on the issue of FGM/C. In May House Speaker Bhofal Chambers reportedly criticized western countries for classifying FGM/C as a human rights violation. Instead, he suggested that sex reassignment surgery practiced in western countries is a human rights violation. The speaker also reportedly said FGM/C was in line with traditional beliefs so it cannot be a violation of human rights.

The Sande and Poro societies–often referred to as “secret societies”–combine traditional religious and cultural practices, and engage in FGM/C as part of their indoctrination ceremonies. In December, 25 representatives of the societies participated in a conference on FGM/C organized by Women and Solidarity Incorporated. The head of the traditional council of Bong County said, “Practitioners are ready to listen but there’s need to engage traditional leaders at the community level.” The head of the National Traditional Council promised to halt Poro and Sande society activities during the academic year, so as not to prevent young inductees from attending school. The council also undertook an inventory of all existing chapters of the secret societies, also called “bushes” or “groves,” and the head of the council requested local chiefs refrain from opening additional chapters.

For more information, see Appendix C.

Other Harmful Traditional Practices: According to a 2015 UN assessment, accusations of witchcraft were common and often had “devastating consequences” for those accused, including trial by ordeal, known locally as “sassywood,” and in some cases, large fines for simple mistakes like inadvertently spilling food when trying to serve it, which is interpreted as a sign of witchcraft. Authorities often failed to investigate or prosecute cases involving trial by ordeal.

Trial by ordeal included: forcing the ingestion of poison; hanging the accused from a tree by the arms or feet for extended periods of time; requiring the accused to retrieve an item from a pot of hot oil; heating a metal object until it glows red and then applying it to the accused’s skin; beatings; rubbing chili pepper and mud into the accused’s bodily orifices (including the vagina); depriving the accused of food and water; requiring the accused to sit in the sun or rain for extended periods; forcing the accused to sit on hot coals; forcing the accused to ingest food or nonfood substances to induce severe vomiting, diarrhea, and other illnesses; and forcing women to parade naked around the community.

There were multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft during the year. On September 4, police reportedly arrested a woman for allegedly poisoning and killing her nine-year-old daughter. She allegedly poisoned her daughter due to “disgrace” because the community accused the girl of using witchcraft to kill two community members. Police arrested the woman and she was charged with murder and release of destructive forces; she remained in prison awaiting trial at year’s end.

Sexual Harassment: The Decent Work Act prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but it remained a significant problem at work and in schools. Government billboards and notices in government offices warned against harassment in the workplace. The MGCSP and the Ministry of Education trained school administrators, students, and parents from seven of the 15 counties to identify warning signs and report incidents of sexual harassment and violence in schools.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, or involuntary sterilization. For estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence, see Appendix C.

Discrimination: By law, women may inherit land and property, are entitled to equal pay for equal work, have the right of equal access to education, and may own and manage businesses. By family law, men retain legal custody of children in divorce cases. In rural areas traditional practice or traditional leaders often did not recognize a woman’s right to inherit land. Programs to educate traditional leaders on women’s rights, especially on land rights, made some progress, but authorities often did not enforce those rights.

Children

Birth Registration: Liberian nationality law stipulates that children of “Negro” descent born in the country to at least one Liberian parent are citizens. Children born outside the country to a Liberian father are also Liberian citizens. Nevertheless, they may lose that citizenship if they do not reside in the country prior to age 21, or if residing abroad they do not take an oath of allegiance before a Liberian consul before age 23. Children born to non-Liberian fathers and Liberian mothers outside of the country do not derive citizenship from the mother. If a child born in the country is not of “Negro” descent, the child may not acquire citizenship. Non-“Negro” residents, such as members of the large Lebanese community, may not acquire or transmit citizenship. The law requires parents to register their infants within 14 days of birth, but fewer than 24 percent of births were registered. Even more women than usual did not give birth at health facilities during the Ebola crisis, resulting in thousands of unregistered births. The government acknowledged this problem and with the help of UNICEF took steps to register these children. For additional information, see Appendix C.

Education: The law provides for tuition-free and compulsory education in public schools from the primary (grades one-six) through junior secondary (grades seven-nine) levels, but many schools charged informal fees to pay teachers’ salaries and operating costs the government did not fund. These fees prevented many students from attending school. By law fees are required at the senior secondary level (grades 10-12).

Girls accounted for less than one-half of all students and graduates in primary and secondary schools, with their proportion decreasing progressively at higher levels. Sexual harassment of girls in schools was commonplace, and adolescent girls were often denied access to school if they became pregnant. Nonetheless, the country made significant progress in narrowing the gender gap at all levels of education, especially in primary school where the gender parity index went from 88 girls per 100 boys in 2008 to 95 girls for every 100 boys in school in 2017. Students with disabilities and those in rural counties were most likely to encounter significant barriers to education. Only 14 percent of girls in rural areas completed primary school.

Child Abuse: Child abuse was a widespread and persistent problem, and there were numerous cases reported throughout the year. For example, in January a woman burned her young niece’s hands after she ate leftover food without permission. The child’s hands were so severely burned that doctors had to amputate several fingers. Police arrested the woman and she was tried and convicted of aggravated assault on a minor. In July she was sentenced to two years in prison.

Numerous reports of sexual violence against children continued, and the government engaged in public awareness campaigns to combat child rape. According to the MGCSP, more rape cases were reported in the 13-to-17 age group than in any other age group. On April 27, police arrested a man after he allegedly raped a 15-year-old girl. He reportedly offered the girl chocolate and French fries before he allegedly raped the girl after she fell asleep. The LNP charged the man with statutory rape, and he was imprisoned awaiting trial as of November.

The MGCSP reported removing children from the immediate reach of the perpetrators and placing them in safe homes. In 2017 the MGCSP launched a “child hotline” to report crimes against children. As of November the government had not established a call-answering command center or provided a vehicle to respond to calls. Staff was responsible for taking calls on personal telephone lines while working and at home, and they could not always respond.

In October ProPublica reported allegations that Macintosh Johnson, an employee of the More than Me girls academy in Monrovia, had sexually assaulted or raped up to 30 of the academy’s students, including on the academy’s property, and possibly impregnated and transmitted HIV to a number of victims. Johnson was charged with rape and faced trial in 2015; a hung jury resulted in a mistrial, and Johnson died in prison in 2016 awaiting retrial. After the ProPublica report was released, the government established an interministerial committee to investigate the matter.

Early and Forced Marriage: The 2011 National Children’s Act sets the minimum marriage age for all persons at 18, while the Domestic Relations Act sets the minimum marriage age at 21 for men and 18 for women. The Equal Rights of the Traditional Marriage Act of 1998 permits a girl to marry at age 16. For additional information, see Appendix C.

With UNICEF support the MGCSP continued the “End Child Marriage” campaign that began in 2016. During the year the MGCSP communicated with traditional leaders and community members in five counties in their local dialects to raise awareness of the illegality and harm of child marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children and child pornography, and authorities generally enforced the law, although girls continued to be exploited in commercial sex in exchange for money, food, and school fees. Additionally, sex in exchange for grades was a pervasive problem in secondary schools, with many teachers forcing female students to exchange sexual favors for passing grades. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. Statutory rape is a criminal offense that has a maximum sentence if convicted of life imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of child pornography is up to five years’ imprisonment. Orphaned children remained especially susceptible to exploitation, including sex trafficking.

Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: There were cases of infanticide. According to the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Protection Unit, children with disabilities were often stigmatized, abandoned, neglected, and exposed to risks (including death). Persons with disabilities suffered torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The National Union of the Organization of the Disabled (NUOD) reported that families sometimes abandoned or refused to provide medical care to children with mental disabilities because of the taboo associated with the conditions or fear that the community would label children with disabilities as witches.

Displaced Children: Despite international and government attempts to reunite children separated from their families during the civil war, some children–a mix of street children, former combatants, and IDPs–continued to live on the streets of Monrovia.

Institutionalized Children: Regulation of orphanages continued to be very weak and many lacked adequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition. The MGCSP conducted periodic monitoring of children in orphanages to ensure provision of basic services. Orphanages relied primarily on private donations and support from international organizations such as UNICEF and the World Food Program for emergency food and medical and psychological care. Many orphans received no assistance from these institutions. The MGCSP ran a transit center for vulnerable children, including abandoned and orphaned children that provided for basic needs until reunification with relatives.

Since the country did not have a designated facility for their care, juvenile offenders outside of the MCP were routinely held in separate cells in adult offender cellblocks. Guidelines existed and steps occasionally were taken to divert juveniles from the formal criminal justice system and place them in a variety of safe homes and “kinship” care situations.

International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data.html

Anti-Semitism

There was a small Jewish community, and there were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.

Persons with Disabilities

The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but these prohibitions were not always enforced. Government buildings were not easily accessible to persons with mobility impairment. Sign language interpretation was often not provided for deaf persons in criminal proceedings or in the provision of state services.

Persons with disabilities faced discrimination in employment, housing, access to all levels of education, and health care. Activists for the persons with disabilities reported that property owners often refused housing to disabled persons. Others claimed that some health-care providers refused to treat persons with disabilities.

According to NUOD persons with disabilities were more likely to become victims of SGBV.

Few children with disabilities had access to education. Public educational institutions discriminated against students with disabilities, arguing resources and equipment were insufficient to accommodate them. Some students with disabilities attended specialized schools mainly for the blind and deaf–but only through elementary school. Students with more significant disabilities are exempt from compulsory education but may attend school subject to constraints on accommodating them. In reality few such students were able to attend either private or public schools.

The right of persons with disabilities to vote and otherwise participate in civic affairs is legally protected and generally respected. Generally, the inaccessibility of buildings posed problems for persons with limited mobility wishing to exercise these rights.

The law requires that the NEC, to the extent practical, make registration and voting centers accessible to persons with disabilities. Despite educational sessions held by the NEC on the issue, persons with disabilities faced challenges during the voter registration and voting periods, including lack of access ramps, transportation to voter registration and polling centers, and mobility assistance at polling centers. The NEC, however, did offer tactile ballots for the visually impaired. The MGCSP and the National Commission on Disabilities are the government agencies responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities and implementing measures designed to improve respect for their rights.

National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities

Although the law prohibits ethnic discrimination, racial discrimination is enshrined in the constitution, which restricts citizenship and land ownership to those of “Negro descent.” While persons of Lebanese and Asian descent who were born or who have lived most of their lives in the country may not by law attain citizenship or own land, there were some exceptions.

Indigenous People

The law recognizes 16 indigenous ethnic groups; each speaks a distinct primary language and is concentrated regionally. Long-standing disputes regarding land and other resources among ethnic groups continued to contribute to social and political tensions.

Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

The law prohibits consensual same-sex sexual activity. “Voluntary sodomy” is a misdemeanor with a penalty for conviction of up to one year’s imprisonment. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists reported LGBTI persons faced difficulty in obtaining redress for crimes committed against them, including at police stations, because those accused of criminal acts used the victim’s LGBTI status in defense of their crime. In November Representative Clarence Massaquoi of Lofa County introduced a bill that would amend the penal code to criminalize “same-sex practices.” The proposed bill was not discussed before the legislature went on recess in December.

LGBTI persons continued to record instances of violent attacks, harassment, and hate speech by community and church leaders. LGBTI victims were afraid to report the crimes to police due to fear that police would detain or abuse them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. LGBTI victims were also afraid to report due to possible retribution from community and family members For example, a woman reported that her husband beat her and then refused to take her for medical treatment when he found out she was transgender. The victim did not report the crime to police because she was afraid her husband would publically identify her as transgender. LGBTI persons rarely reported rape cases to police due to fear and social stigma surrounding both sexual orientation and rape.

Authorities of the LNP Community Services Section noted improvements in obtaining redress for crimes committed against LGBTI persons due to several training sessions on sexual and reproductive rights. Police sometimes ignored complaints by LGBTI persons, but LGBTI activists noted improvements in treatment and protection from police after LNP officers underwent human rights training.

On January 20, a group of persons in Monrovia reportedly harassed and assaulted five members of the LGBTI community. The group tore the clothes off their bodies and stole their personal belongings and money. Cases of abuse of LGBTI persons may be reported via the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Protection Unit, the National AIDS Commission, and the INCHR. LGBTI persons were cautious about revealing their sexual orientation or gender identities in public. A few civil society groups promoted the rights of LGBTI individuals, but most groups maintained a low profile due to fear of mistreatment. After moderating a public event for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in May, a program assistant for the organization Stop AIDS in Liberia received numerous telephone calls threatening his personal safety.

LGBTI individuals faced discrimination in accessing housing, health care, employment, and education. There were several reports from LGBTI activists that property owners refused housing to members of the LGBTI community by either denying applications or evicting residents from their properties. In 2016 the Liberia Business Registry denied registration to an NGO promoting LGBTI rights for “activity which is not allowed in Liberia.” As of December the registration request continued to be denied.

There were press and civil society reports of harassment of persons on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, with some newspapers targeting the LGBTI community. Hate speech was a persistent issue. Influential figures such as government officials and traditional and religious leaders made public homophobic and transphobic statements. For example, a prominent religious leader, Saint Solomon Joah, reportedly threatened to take a police officer with him to a stakeholder’s dialogue on LGBTI rights to arrest members of the LGBTI community in May. In June Joah reportedly called for the arrest of all LGBTI persons, said homosexuality was criminal and ungodly, and called persons in a same-sex marriage “dogs.”

An advocacy organization reported that during the year, a member of the LGBTI community seeking a scholarship offered by Representative Solomon George of the national House of Representatives was told by an office staff member that the representative did not support gay rights and would not give out a scholarship to such persons. The LGBTI community member also reported that the representative’s refusal was because he “acts like a female.”

The Ministry of Health has a coordinator to assist minority groups–including LGBTI persons–in obtaining access to health care and police assistance. Civil society groups trained 62 LNP officers on human rights as part of an effort to educate police on the rights of these communities. Members of the LGBTI community often called upon trained LNP officers, known as protection officers, to intervene in cases of harassment and violence.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits “discrimination and vilification on the basis of actual and perceived HIV status” in the workplace, school, and health facilities, with conviction of offenses punishable by a fine of no less than L$1,000 ($6.67).

The most recent demographic and health survey in 2013 found no measurable change since 2007 in popular attitudes, which remained broadly discriminatory, toward those with HIV. HIV-related social stigma and discrimination discouraged people from testing for their HIV status, thus limiting HIV prevention and treatment services. According to a Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS report released in July, an estimated 40,000 persons were living with HIV in the country, with approximately 2,300 new cases reported in 2017. Children orphaned because of AIDS faced similar social stigma.

Government ministries developed, adopted, and implemented several strategic plans to combat social stigma and discrimination based on HIV status. The Ministry of Labor continued to promote a supportive environment for persons with HIV and held a workshop in November to discuss the issue. The Ministry of Education continued implementation of its strategic plan to destigmatize and safeguard HIV-positive persons against discrimination.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

The penal code classifies mob violence as a crime. Nevertheless, mob violence and vigilantism, due in part to the public’s lack of confidence in police and the judicial system, often resulted in deaths and injuries. Although mob violence usually targeted alleged criminals, it was difficult to determine underlying reasons since cases were rarely prosecuted.

There were also reports of continued stigmatization of Ebola survivors and their families and health-care workers who had worked in Ebola treatment facilities. According to the Ebola Survivors Network, survivors and their families confronted discrimination from landlords, neighbors, health-care providers, and employers.

Ritual killings reportedly increased during the 2017 election cycle but declined during the year. It is difficult to ascertain exact numbers since ritual killings were often attributed to homicide, accidents, or suicide. There were reports of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victim, a practice possibly related to ritual killings. In August a man allegedly killed a seven-year-old boy in an apparent ritualistic killing. The LNP arrested the suspect but days later he escaped from police custody and as of November was still on the run. According to a press release from the LNP, in response to the suspect’s escape the LNP suspended 10 officers for periods ranging from two weeks to two months; the LNP indefinitely suspended two additional officers and charged them with obstructing government functions.

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