Liberia is a constitutional republic with a bicameral national assembly and a democratically elected government led by President George Manneh Oppong Weah and the political alliance Coalition for Democratic Change. The country held presidential and legislative elections in 2017, which domestic and international observers deemed generally free and fair. The then Montserrado County Senator George Weah won the presidential runoff in December 2017 in an election that was generally considered free and fair. In December 2020 the country held midterm senatorial elections that observers deemed largely peaceful, although there were some reported instances of vote tampering, intimidation, harassment of female candidates, and election violence. Opposition and independent candidates won 12 of the 15 Senate seats contested, according to election results announced by the National Election Commission. On November 16, by-elections for the House of Representatives were held in Bong, Bomi, Nimba, and Grand Gedeh counties to fill vacancies created after the December 2020 midterm senatorial elections. Once again, election observers deemed the proceedings largely peaceful, although there were some reported instances of vote tampering, intimidation, harassment of female candidates, and election violence.
The Liberia National Police maintain internal security, with assistance from the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency and other civilian security forces. The Armed Forces of Liberia are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities if called upon. The Liberia National Police and Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency report to the Ministry of Justice, while the Armed Forces of Liberia report to the Ministry of National Defense. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary killings by police; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on freedom of the press, including violence, intimidation and threats against journalists resulting in self-censorship, and unjustified arrests of journalists; serious government corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for gender-based violence, including child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation/cutting; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and existence of the worst forms of child labor.
Impunity continued for individuals who committed human rights abuses, including atrocities during the two Liberian civil wars, as multiple investigative and audit reports were ignored. The government made intermittent but limited attempts to investigate and prosecute officials accused of current abuses, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government. Impunity continued for government corruption.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of a woman or man is illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and rape remained a serious and pervasive problem, especially under COVID-19 enforced lockdowns. 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.
In September 2020 President Weah issued a proclamation declaring a national emergency on rape after a three-day protest by thousands following the rape of a three-year-old girl by a teenage boy using a razor blade to commit the crime. Under the National Rape Emergency, President Weah declared initial measures that included the appointment of a special prosecutor for rape, the setting up of a National Sex Offender Registry, the establishment of a National Security Taskforce on sexual- and gender-based violence, and the allotment of an initial amount of two million dollars to strengthen the country’s efforts to combat rape and sexual- and gender-based violence. There was, however, little follow-through on these initial proposals and efforts.
On April 12, FrontPage Africa reported that a 49-year-old man from Zota District in Bong County fled after he reportedly raped and impregnated his 14-year-old daughter. The alleged sexual abuse took place from December 2020 to April. It was reported that after sexually abusing her and in a bid to buy her silence, he threatened to kill her if she reported the assaults to anyone. After being discovered, the alleged rapist threatened both the girl and her mother with death if they reported him to police. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.
On June 8, a radio station reported that a 65-year-old man was arrested in Margibi County for allegedly raping a one-month-old baby, leading to the baby’s death. Women in the county campaigned for the death penalty for rapists following the incident.
On August 20, the Liberia National Police arrested and detained the founder and general overseer of Image of Christ Deliverance Philadelphia Central Church in Kakata, Margibi County, Apostle D. Franklin Snorton, for allegedly raping a 21-year-old pregnant woman. According to the victim’s father, his daughter alleged that Snorton demanded sex from her while pointing a knife and threatening to kill her if she resisted him. The alleged perpetrator was arraigned before the Kakata Magisterial Court on August 23.
On December 30, FrontPage Africa reported that a 14-year-old girl in Gbarpolu County died as a result of being raped by a 30-year-old man identified as Saah Sumo on December 22. The victim was first transported to the Mona Clinic, but it lacked the medical supplies to stop the bleeding caused by the assault. She was referred to the Chief Jallah Lone Health Center in Bopolu City, which was several hours away from Kolah Village where she resided. The only one-stop center for rape and other gender-based violence cases and medical center in the area was located in Bopolu, Gbarpolu county’s capital. The local police station was understaffed and lacked the resources to follow up on cases like rape that often occurred in the rural parts of the county.
Minister of Gender, Children, and Social Protection Williametta Piso Saydee-Tarr claimed on a national radio program that sexual and gender-based violence cases decreased between January and June. Women’s rights groups criticized the ministry, noting that the government’s data showed no decrease. Between January and June the Ministry of Justice’s Sexual and Gender-based Violence Unit reported 605 cases, comprising 450 statutory rape cases, 100 rape cases, 55 gang-rape cases, and 10 cases of sodomy.
According to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights’ August Human Rights Situation Report, of the 1,337 inmates at the Monrovia Central Prison, 325 were serving sentences for rape, six for rape and murder, six for rape involving sodomy, and seven for armed robbery and rape. The report noted perpetrators of rape enjoyed widespread impunity, for which it cited bureaucratic obstacles that restricted the number of cases that could be heard in each judicial term and institutional weaknesses by specialized agencies of government tasked with implementing anti-sexual- and gender-based violence policies. The Independent National Commission on Human Rights noted that some perpetrators used COVID-19 restrictions on movement as an opportunity to prey on vulnerable individuals.
An overtaxed justice system, compounded by health restrictions, prevented timely prosecutions, and delays caused many victims to cease cooperating with prosecutors. Victims’ families sometimes requested money from the perpetrators as a form of redress; perpetrators sometimes offered money to prevent matters from going to court. Authorities often dropped cases due to a lack of evidence.
Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem, and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection stated that in 2020, the most recent figures available, 16 percent of reported sexual- and gender-based violence cases were for domestic violence.
The maximum penalty for conviction of domestic violence was six months’ imprisonment, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. The Women and Children Protection Section of the Liberia National Police received reports on cases of domestic violence. Civil society officials suggested that lack of speedy trials led victims to seek redress outside the formal justice system.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): According to the 2019-20 Liberia Demographic and Health Survey (LDHS), the most recent available, 38 percent of girls and women ages 15 to 49 had undergone FGM/C, with higher prevalence in the country’s northern regions. Although the government routinely decried FGM/C in discussions of violence against women, there were no laws criminalizing it. Political resistance to passing legislation criminalizing FGM/C continued because of the public sensitivity of the topic and its association with particular tribes and secret societies in populous counties. The Sande (for females) and Poro (for males) societies, often referred to as “secret societies,” combined traditional religious and cultural practices and engaged in FGM/C as part of their indoctrination ceremonies.
In 2018 then president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order to prohibit FGM/C of all persons younger than age 18 and of persons older than 18 without their consent, but the order lapsed in early 2019 with no extension announced. Several human rights organizations reported bush school (secret society) activities and FGM/C continued, despite the ban. NGO representatives reported there was little political will within the legislature to take on the issue of FGM/C; however, a high-level government official suggested otherwise.
On February 5, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, Chief Zanzan Karwo, the leader of the National Traditional Council, resisted international pressure to abolish FGM/C. He stated his belief that FGM/C prepares young women to become good wives. An Alternate Economic Livelihood program, initiated in 2019 to provide traditional practitioners of FGM/C (“zoes”) alternative economic livelihood activities so that they would not generate income from FGM/C, provided resources and education to former practitioners.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Many observers, including the Independent National Commission on Human Rights, reported an apparent increase in harmful traditional practices during the year, including ritualistic killings, accusations of witchcraft, and trial by ordeal, although comprehensive data to confirm the increase was unavailable. Lot casting, forced ingestion of sassywood (a poisonous concoction made of the bark of the Erythrophleum suaveolens tree), and other traditional forms of trial by ordeal to establish guilt or innocence are outlawed. Reported incidents of trial by ordeal included drinking a concocted liquid, heating a metal object until it glowed red and then applying it to the accused’s skin, beatings, inserting sharp objects into bodily orifices (including the vagina), and forcing women to parade naked around the community.
It remained difficult to obtain convictions for ritualistic killings in the court system because the justice system does not recognize traditional rites as judicable issues. There were credible reports by human rights observers, media, and, in one case of a motorcyclist in Maryland County, even the Liberia National Police, of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victims. There were also multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft.
In July a middle-aged man in Sinoe County was subjected to the traditional “sassywood” practice after he was accused of witchcraft in the deaths of two persons, as well the disappearance of a teenager, in a video widely circulated on social media. In the video two men appeared to assault the man. One of the men stepped on the victim’s leg and another stepped on the victim’s neck. The men beat the victim, who was naked, as a crowd looked on. The attackers repeatedly demanded that the victim confess to his alleged crimes.
On March 25, Moses Mlarmah and unidentified others allegedly killed motorcyclist and student Mordecious Nyemah in a ritualistic killing near Bassiken Town, between Gand Kru and Maryland Counties. Nyemah’s killing led to mass protests that resulted in damage to government property, including arson attacks on the home of Speaker of the House of Representatives Bhofal Chambers, the burning of a police station in the Pleebo Sodoken District, Maryland County, and the escape of 90 inmates from the Harper Central Jail after thousands of protesters vandalized the prison. The violence led President Weah to impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew. On April 5, police arrested and sent to the Zwedru Correction Palace several suspects in the killing, many of the escaped prisoners who had been recaptured, as well as some members of the mob who attacked the prison on March 30.
Sexual Harassment: The law 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. In his remarks at the September 1 induction ceremony for the new Board of Commissioners of the Independent National Commission on Human Rights, Chairman T. Dempster Brown expressed alarm over the increase in the wave of gender-based violence, rape, and sexual harassment across the country and called for swift action to address these issues.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
While most clinics in the country provided family planning counselling and a mix of planning methods, access to these services at times proved difficult, particularly for women living in rural areas or those with limited financial means.
According to the 2019-20 LDHS, the most recent available, 25 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 reported using a modern form of contraception. Among sexually active unmarried women, 45 percent used modern family planning, while 23 percent of married women used a modern method. Unmet needs for family planning (defined as the percentage of sexually active women who want to postpone their next birth or limit their number of births but did not use a modern method of contraception) increased slightly from 31 percent in 2013 to 33 percent, according to the LDHS. The highest unmet need was among girls and younger women; almost half (47 percent) of women between the ages of 15 and 19 had an unmet need for family planning, primarily for the spacing of children.
The 2019-20 LDHS estimated the maternal mortality rate for the seven-year period before the survey was 742 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. Postpartum hemorrhage remained the leading cause of maternal mortality and accounted for approximately 34 percent of maternal deaths. In remote areas infrastructure and adequate facilities in clinics were often lacking, and midwives and health workers sometimes delivered babies without electricity at night. According to the survey, teenage childbearing was 30 percent in 2019-20. FGM/C remained a problem and contributed to maternal morbidity.
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 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 in rural areas.
Birth Registration: The nationality law stipulates 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. Children born outside of the country to Liberian parents are not entitled to registration, certification, or a birth certificate.
Every child born in the country is entitled to birth registration and certification, regardless of the parents’ nationality or socioeconomic status, but if a child born in the country is not of “Negro” descent, the child may not acquire Liberian 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 according to the 2019-20 LDHS, only 66 per cent of children younger than five years of age were registered.
Education: According to UNESCO, as of 2017, the most recent data available, only 44 percent of children of official primary school age were enrolled in school, and only 55 percent of children completed primary education. Forty percent of primary school students were more than three years older than the age considered to be appropriate for the grade in which they were enrolled. A 2019 international donor assessment indicated approximately 60 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 did not complete sixth grade.
The law provides for tuition-free and compulsory education in public schools from the primary (grades one to six) through junior secondary (grades seven to nine) levels, but many schools charged registration and activity fees to pay for volunteer teachers’ salaries and operating costs the government did not fund. The Ministry of Education authorized these fees, which were managed by the school administration and parent teacher associations. These fees prevented some students who could not afford them from attending school, as they were required to be paid before a student could be enrolled.
The academic calendar often conflicted with the preferred timing of traditional instructions (at times referred to as “bush school”). As a result, many children abandoned schools for periods ranging from a few weeks to several months.
Girls accounted for less than half of all students and graduates in primary (44 percent in 2017) and secondary schools (33 percent in 2015), with their proportion decreasing progressively at higher levels (9 percent in tertiary education in 2012).
Sexual harassment of girls in schools was commonplace. Nearly a third of schoolgirls were asked for sex by school staff or other adults in return for money or good scores. Adolescent girls were often denied access to school if they became pregnant.
Nonetheless, the country continued to work on 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, including of sexual violence against children. The government engaged in public awareness campaigns to combat child rape.
On February 23, The World News reported that Mama Cole, the mother of 11-year-old Jerome Brown, who died after reportedly being kept in a shack by his stepmother, Wanneh Tarpalah, and biological father, Emmanuel (no last name given) without eating or drinking for several weeks, called on the government and women and child rights advocates to ensure that those who allegedly starved her son were held accountable.
On August 10, it was reported that the Armed Forces of Liberia released reports from the Ministry of Justice on an investigation initiated by the Ministry of Defense and carried out by the Ministry of Justice through the Liberia National Police exonerated Armed Forces of Liberia Lieutenant Colonel E. Nyankun Williams following a complaint on April 26 by Sergeant Obento Roberts against Williams for raping his 16-year-old daughter. The lieutenant colonel was exonerated because statements recorded from witnesses during the enquiry lacked corroboration.
On November 5, FrontPage Africa reported that Siah Tamba, of Komdeh community, Tubmanburg, Bomi County, admitted to burning the fingers of her adolescent son for stealing meat from his grandmother. She melted plastic on his hands, causing him to lose his left fingers.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The 2011 National Children’s Act sets the minimum marriage age for all persons at 18, the Domestic Relations Law sets the minimum marriage age at 21 for men and 18 for women, and the Equal Rights of Customary Marriage Law of 1998 permits a girl to marry at age 16. According to UNICEF, in 2020, the most recent data available, 9 percent of girls were forced to marry before age 15 and 36 percent before age 18.
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, including in commercial sex in exchange for money, food, and school fees. An October amendment to the 2005 antihuman trafficking law strengthens the penalties for child sex trafficking offenses by removing the requirement to demonstrate elements of force, fraud, or coercion. Sex 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 carries a maximum sentence 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.
On January 28, several media outlets reported that hundreds of women in Maryland County protested and demanded the government prosecute Raymond P.K. Bardio Jr., the son of a powerful prayer woman in Pleebo Sodoken District, for allegedly posting nude pictures of a young female student at Tubman University on social media. Authorities arrested Bardio, who remained detained awaiting trial at year’s end.
In August the plenary of the House of Representatives ordered Joseph Jake Brown, former assistant director for cybercrime and intelligence at the National Security Agency, incarcerated for three days at the Monrovia Central Prison and requested that the Ministries of Gender, Children, and Social Protection; Justice; and Labor and the National Security Agency investigate Brown’s alleged involvement in an act of “child trafficking and sexual abuse” of a minor.
Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: There were no reports of infanticide.
According to the Ministry of Justice’s Human Rights Protection Unit, children with disabilities were often stigmatized, abandoned, neglected, and purposely exposed to risks (including death).
Displaced Children: Despite international and government attempts to reunite children separated from their families during the civil war, some street children, former child soldiers, and IDPs continued to live on the streets of Monrovia. Now adults, these homeless individuals – sleeping in the streets, dilapidated buildings, and tombs in cemeteries in and around central Monrovia – who often suffered from drug addiction and engage in crime, were referred to as “zogos” (boys) and “zogees” (girls).
Institutionalized Children: Regulation of orphanages continued to be very weak, and many lacked adequate sanitation, medical care, and nutrition. The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection did not monitor orphanages to ensure provision of basic services. Orphanages relied primarily on private donations and support from international organizations. Many orphans received little to no assistance.
The ministry continued to operate the Julue-Ta Interim Care Center in the GSA Community, Paynesville, a temporary shelter capable of accommodating approximately 30 vulnerable children of both genders, including abandoned and orphaned children, which provided for basic needs, including psychosocial (educational and recreational) support, until reunification with relatives.
Since the country did not have a designated facility for their care, juvenile offenders outside the Monrovia Central Prison were routinely held in separate cells in adult offender cellblocks (see section 1.c.). 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. Officials at the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labor occasionally misapplied the term human trafficking to likely cases of international child abduction.