Liberia is a constitutional republic with a bicameral national assembly and a democratically elected government. The country held presidential and legislative elections in 2017, and legislative by-elections in 2018, which domestic and international observers deemed generally free and fair. Vacancies in one Senate seat and one House of Representatives seat prompted by-elections on July 29. Soon after, the National Elections Commission (NEC) declared Liberty Party candidate Darius Dillon winner of the Senate race. On August 28, the NEC held a run-off in 20 voting precincts for the House seat, given irregularities in voter registration. There were incidents of violence during the campaign for the House seat, including stone throwing and property damage. In addition, multiple press outlets reported allegations of an assault on Deputy Police Inspector General Marvin Sackor. On August 28, the NEC declared the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) candidate Abu Kamara the winner.
The Liberia National Police (LNP) maintains internal security, with assistance from the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency (LDEA) and other civilian security forces. The Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities if called upon. The LNP and LDEA report to the Ministry of Justice while the AFL reports to the Ministry of Defense. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary killings by police; arbitrary detention by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; substantial restrictions on free expression and the press, including site blocking; official corruption; lack of accountability in cases of violence against women due to government inaction in some instances, including rape, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); trafficking in persons; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.
Impunity for individuals who committed human rights abuses, including atrocities during the civil wars that ended in 2003, remained a serious problem. 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. Security forces and law enforcement officials undertook some training to increase respect for human rights.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
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.
On May 22, 21-year-old Odell Sherman was discovered unconscious at a private residence in Duazohn, Margibi County, and then transported to a hospital, where she died. Confusingly, media reports indicated that the initial death certificate listed the cause of death as “sexual assault or falling.” The case attracted numerous media reports over a period of months, as the family alleged foul play, said they did not trust the government to investigate the case, and requested an autopsy by an outside expert. Because of the length of time following the incident, the examiner was unable to establish if Odell had been sexually assaulted. A separate report by Front Page Africa found that a DNA analysis machine at the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, the only such machine in the country, was not in use, as there was no one qualified to operate it.
The government undertook some efforts to address the problems of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence. A specialized sexual violence court (Court E) had exclusive original jurisdiction over cases of sexual assault, including abuse of minors, and was presided over by two authorized judges. According to the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, there were 1,508 gender-based violence cases as of July, and rape accounted for almost 70 percent of the cases reported. Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against persons younger than 18 accounted for 73 percent of cases referred to the ministry. Observers believed the true incidence of statutory rape was much higher than the number of rape cases reported.
The government operated two shelters for SGBV victims, victims of trafficking in persons, and others in need of protection–one in Lofa County and one in Nimba County. The government did not operate shelters in Monrovia. There were five other shelters across the country, but they were not operational at year’s end. 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 Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection assigned gender coordinators and staff members to each county office to increase public awareness of SGBV crimes and refer victims to assistance. The ministry also established “buddy clubs” in public schools across the country for children to discuss and report SGBV cases. LNP officers received training on SGBV through programs sponsored by the EU Spotlight Initiative and the UNDP.
An overtaxed justice system 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. The Women and Children Protection Section (WACPS) of the LNP reported that courts dropped 51 percent of reported domestic violence cases due to lack of evidence. The ability to collect and preserve evidence of SGBV crimes was also insufficient.
Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem, and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection stated 16 percent of reported cases were for domestic violence.
In August the legislature passed and the president signed into law the new Domestic Violence Act, which reportedly strengthened penalties and provided support for a referral mechanism, although as of December the final text of the law had not been published. The existing maximum penalty for conviction of domestic violence was six months’ imprisonment, but the government did not enforce the law effectively. The WACPS received reports on 579 cases of domestic violence between January and September, a 32-percent decrease from the 764 cases reported during the same period in 2018. Government and civil society officials suggested that decreased capacity in the courts led victims to seek redress outside the formal justice system.
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 remained widespread. 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 early in the year. No FGM/C perpetrators were prosecuted during the year.
In April, Front Page Africa reported a 25-year-old woman was drugged, abducted, and forcibly subjected to FGM/C as part of ritual initiation into the Sande Society, where she was held for three weeks. The victim alleged that someone in her family had paid approximately 3,000 Liberian Dollars (LD) ($15) for the initiation and procedure.
There were public statements supporting limiting or prohibiting FGM/C. In June the National Council of Chiefs and Elders and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with support from UN Women and the EU Spotlight Initiative, agreed to suspend for one year the activities of “bush schools”–traditional schools in which girls learn farming and household skills but were often subjected to initiation rites including FGM/C. 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. A number of human rights organizations reported bush school activities and FGM/C continued, despite the ban.
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.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Many observers, including the INCHR, the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform, and the human rights office of the United Methodist Church, reported an apparent uptick in harmful traditional practices, including ritualistic killings, trial by ordeal, and accusations of witchcraft, but the government and NGOs did not collect comprehensive data. There were reports of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victims. In May, two boys went missing from Kingsville, Montserrado County, and their bodies were discovered on June 3, reportedly mutilated with body parts removed. Most news reports referred to the incident as a ritualistic killing or the activity of “heart men”–individuals who remove organs for ritualistic purposes.
There were multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft during the year. In September a jury in Buchanan convicted seven men and sentenced each of them to 45 years in prison on charges of murder, aggravated assault, criminal facilitation, and criminal conspiracy for their roles in a December 2018 attack against three women accused of witchcraft. After the women were accused of eating a child as part of a ritualistic practice, they were stripped, paraded through town, beaten, assaulted with palm branches and nettles, and raped; one woman was killed.
During the year reported incidents of trial by ordeal included 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.
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 Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection 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.
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.
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.
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 only 25 percent of children younger than age five had birth certificates. 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 and the Liberia Council of Churches took steps to register these children.
Education: 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 informal fees to pay for 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 to 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. In June, Front Page Africa reported pastor Brown Sneh put two children on public display in downtown Monrovia and accused them of witchcraft, prompting them to give “confessions” and telling passersby that he had cured them of demonic possession. Children, especially those with disabilities, were occasionally accused of witchcraft and demonic possession and used as props for adults who claimed to be able to cure them.
Numerous reports of sexual violence against children continued, and the government engaged in public awareness campaigns to combat child rape. According to the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, more rape victims were reported in the 13 to 17 age group than in any other. In June, Criminal Court A sentenced 21-year-old steel worker Saah Joseph to 30 years’ imprisonment for raping and murdering 15-year-old Vivian Wright after reportedly offering her $20 to sleep with him and growing angry when she refused to consent to anal sex.
The Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection reported removing children from the immediate reach of the perpetrators and placing them in safe homes. In 2017 the ministry launched a “child hotline” to report crimes against children, but as of November the number was not functional.
In June, Solomon Joah Jr., dean of student affairs at the private Soltiamon School, lashed a 16-year-old student multiple times across her buttocks for supposedly leaving class without a pass; the student said she left class because she needed a sanitary pad. The Ministry of Education noted that corporal punishment is banned, recommended Joah’s removal, fined the school LD 350,000 ($1,660), and ordered the school to pay the cost of the student’s medical treatment. On July 2, both Solomon Joah Jr. and school proprietor Solomon Joah Sr. were charged with aggravated assault and criminal facilitation.
In June the More than Me girls’ academy announced that it would cease running schools in the country following financial difficulties stemming from a 2018 report that an employee had sexually assaulted or raped up to 30 students. As of November the government had not released its report on the situation.
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 Customary Marriage Law of 1998 permits a girl to marry at age 16.
With support from the EU Spotlight Initiative and the United Nations, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection continued the “End Child Marriage” campaign that began in 2016. During the year the ministry communicated with traditional leaders and community members in five counties in their local languages to raise awareness of the illegality and harm of child marriage.
According to UNICEF, 9 percent of girls were married 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. 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 if convicted has 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.
Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: There were cases of infanticide. In September the Daily Observer reported a woman had thrown her one-year-old daughter into the St. John River because of “hardship.” 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). Persons with disabilities suffered torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The National Union of the Organization of the Disabled (NUOD) reported 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. These homeless youth, who often suffered drug addiction and engaged in crime, were referred to as “zogos.”
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 run a transit center capable of accommodating approximately 35 vulnerable children, including abandoned and orphaned children, which provided for basic needs until reunification with relatives.
Since the country did not have a designated facility for their care, juvenile offenders outside 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. Officials at the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Labor occasionally misapplied the term human trafficking to likely cases 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/reported-cases.html.
There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts against the country’s small Jewish community.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but these prohibitions were not always enforced. Most 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 persons with disabilities reported property owners often refused housing to persons with disabilities. According to NUOD, persons with disabilities were more likely to become victims of SGBV.
In April, Front Page Africa reported that a 13-year-old girl with visual impairment was raped on separate occasions by two individuals, one of them a youth instructor at the Christian Association of the Blind school she attended. The instructor, who was 17 at the time and allegedly raped her in the kitchen of the school, was dismissed after the rape was brought to the attention of the school administrators. Administrators also initially denied the individual was an instructor at the school but, according to media reports, a number of students said the individual was in fact an instructor. The perpetrator was arrested in September and charged with corruption of a minor. According to reports, he was being charged as a minor, although he was 20 years old at the time of his arraignment.
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 a few 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. 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 Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection 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.
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.
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.
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.
LGBTI persons continued to record instances of assaults, harassment, and hate speech by community members. The Liberian Initiative for the Promotion of Rights, Identity and Equality reported that on November 10, an HIV testing drop-in center was stormed by members of the surrounding community who attacked a number of LGBTI persons who had gathered to celebrate a birthday. Reports indicated that approximately 10 persons were injured and five hospitalized, including one person stabbed and another knocked unconscious. The community members alleged, falsely, that a gay wedding was taking place at the compound.
LGBTI victims were sometimes afraid to report the crimes to police due to social stigma surrounding sexual orientation and rape as well as fear police would detain or abuse them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The HIV/AIDS team of the LNP and the Solidarity Sisters–a group of female police officers–undertook outreach to key communities, resolved disputes before they escalated, and helped other police officers respond to sensitive cases.
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.
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 human rights of LGBTI persons for “activity which is not allowed in Liberia.” The organization was later able to register under an acronym and with a modified scope of work.
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.
The Ministry of Health had a coordinator to assist minority groups–including LGBTI persons–in obtaining access to health care and police assistance. Members of the LGBTI community often called upon trained LNP officers, known as protection officers, to intervene in cases of harassment and violence.
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 LD 1,000 ($4.75).
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 UNAIDS, an estimated 39,000 persons were living with HIV in the country in 2018, with approximately 1,900 new cases reported in 2017. Children orphaned because of AIDS faced similar social stigma.
Government ministries developed, adopted, and implemented several plans to combat social stigma and discrimination based on HIV status. The Ministry of Health supported training to make health-care facilities more receptive to key populations, held discussions and outreach sessions, and provided services through drop-in centers. The Ministry of Justice and the LNP worked with civil society organization to engage key populations.
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, were common and often resulted in deaths and injuries. Although mob violence sometimes targeted alleged criminals, it was difficult to determine underlying reasons, since cases were rarely prosecuted.
In August a mob attacked a group of “zogos”–homeless young men who often have drug problems–for allegedly stabbing a man to death after stealing his cellphone. According to reports, John Flomo was killed after he was stabbed attempting to recover his cellphone. A number of community members in the Pottery Market area of Paynesville then attacked and injured at least one individual. Police later announced the arrests of two persons in connection with the attack on Flomo, one charged with murder, and of 12 persons in connection with the retaliatory attacks, one charged with manslaughter.