Liberia is a constitutional republic with a bicameral national assembly and a democratically elected government. The country held presidential and legislative elections in 2017, which domestic and international observers deemed generally free and fair. In December the country held midterm senatorial elections which observers deemed largely peaceful, although there were some reported instances of vote tampering, intimidation, harassment of female candidates, and election violence. Opposition candidates won 11 of the 15 Senate seats contested, according to election results announced by the National Election Commission on December 21.
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 has 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. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary killings by police; cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by government officials; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on freedom of the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; official corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the worst forms of child labor.
Impunity for individuals who committed human rights abuses, including atrocities, during the Liberian civil wars that ended in 2003, remained a serious problem, although the government cooperated with war crimes investigations in third countries. 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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape of a female or male 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.
During the year the government increased efforts to combat rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence. In July, in response to concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic had contributed to a rise in rape and other cases of sexual and gender-based violence, President Weah created an interministerial taskforce on sexual and gender-based violence. On September 8-9, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection convened a national conference on combatting rape and other acts of sexual and gender-based violence, which resulted in a plan to increase government action to address sexual and gender-based violence through victim support functions, the creation of a National Security Task Force on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, the launch of a public awareness campaign, capacity building for relevant ministries, and harsher punishments for perpetrators. As a result, public awareness of the issue increased, but the task force faced logistical challenges, such as a lack of vehicles.
On July 23, Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor called for the arrest of Sense Kaiwu, a high school teacher at the Pejuhum public school in Grand Cape Mount County, Tewor District. Kaiwu allegedly raped and impregnated a 14-year-old girl in October 2019, who gave birth in July. The teacher fled, and no further information on his whereabouts was available at year’s end.
In August a consortium of civil society groups organized three days of protest against what the groups termed “an increasing wave of rape in Liberia.” On the first day of the protest, partisan violence broke out between protesters and persons believed to be supporters of the ruling CDC political party, who objected to the presence of Senator Abraham Darius Dillon on the protest grounds. Stone throwing between rival protesters resulted in injuries to two persons, as reported by news outlets. The protesters demanded that President George Weah personally receive their petition. On the second day of the protest, a group attempted to disperse the crowd of protesters, which again led to stone throwing. On the last day of the protest, LNP officers drove the protesters off the streets and reportedly used tear gas and arrested some of the protesters.
The government operated two shelters for victims of sexual and gender-based violence, 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. 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 sexual and gender-based violence crimes and refer victims to assistance. The ministry also established “buddy clubs” in public schools across the country for children to discuss and report sexual and gender-based violence cases. Police officers received training on sexual and gender-based violence 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 police reported that courts dropped 51 percent of reported domestic violence cases due to lack of evidence. The ability to collect and preserve evidence of sexual and gender-based violence crimes was also lacking.
Although outlawed, domestic violence remained a widespread problem, and the Ministry of Gender stated 16 percent of reported sexual and gender-based violence cases were for domestic violence.
The 2019 Domestic Violence Act reportedly strengthened penalties and provided support for a referral mechanism, although copies of the law, and a simplified version of it, were not widely available to the public due to lack of funding. The 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 cases of domestic violence between January and September, which showed a decrease in the cases reported during the same period in 2019. Government and civil society officials attributed the reduced reporting of cases to the COVID-19 pandemic, as movement restrictions delayed official reporting, support services were limited due to the lockdown, and victims were unwilling to identify perpetrators while still living in close proximity under curfews and stay-at-home orders during the government declared state of emergency from April 8 through July 22. 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 Demographic and Health Survey, 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 in populous counties. 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. NGO representatives reported there was little political will within the legislature to take on the issue of FGM/C.
In June 2019 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” or traditional schools, like the Sande Society, in which girls learned farming and household skills but were often subjected to initiation rites, including FGM/C. Although the one-year period ended in June, the suspension reportedly remained in place and largely enforced by the Traditional Council of Chiefs and Elders in collaboration with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Sande (for females) and Poro (for males) societies–often referred to as “secret societies”–combine traditional religious and cultural practices and engage in FGM/C as part of their indoctrination ceremonies. Several human rights organizations reported bush school activities and FGM/C continued, despite the ban. In April, Front Page Africa reported a 25-year-old woman was drugged, abducted, forcibly subjected to FGM/C as part of ritual initiation into the Sande Society, and then held for three weeks. The victim alleged that someone in her family had paid for the initiation and procedure.
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 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. Commonly called “Sassywood,” trial by ordeal is a way to establish guilt or innocence that takes many forms. 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 reports of killings in which perpetrators removed body parts from the victims. The online newspaper Bush Chicken reported that on September 8, the body of a three-year-old girl was discovered in Dowein District, Bomi County, with body parts missing, including eyes, genitalia, tongue, and left foot, all indications that the child may have been a victim of ritual murder.
There were multiple cases of life-threatening violence against persons accused of witchcraft. In September 2019 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 2018 attack against three women accused of witchcraft, in which one woman was raped and another killed.
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 2019 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.
Reproductive Rights: No laws restrict couples and individuals from deciding the number, spacing, and timing of their children or managing their reproductive health, and individuals have the right to seek and acquire information on reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. While the majority of clinics in the country provided family planning counselling and a mix of planning methods, access to these services at times proved challenging, particularly for women living in rural areas or those with limited financial means.
According to the 2019-20 Liberia Demographic Health Survey (LDHS), 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 2019-20 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. The survey estimated that 84 percent of births were attended by a skilled provider. According to the survey, the birth rate for adolescents was 30 percent. Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) remained a problem and contributed to maternal morbidity.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
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 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.
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 only 25 percent of children younger than age five had birth certificates.
Education: Only 26.1 percent of children of official primary school age were enrolled in school, and only 34 percent of children completed primary education. On average, children attended school for 4.7 years in Liberia. 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 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 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. 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 July, Front Page Africa reported that an adolescent girl was sodomized after she was thrown out of her family home in the Omega Tower community for “witchcraft.” The girl was discovered early the next morning lying on the main road between Montserrado and Margibi Counties. Some community members accused the family of the victim of neglect and blamed them for throwing the girl out after relatives alleged she confessed to killing her 25-year-old uncle.
In June police arrested Johnson Chuluty in the Mount Barclay community of Montserrado County for statutory rape for allegedly impregnating his 15-year-old stepdaughter. Police also arrested the wife of the suspect, Mary Chuluty. In a video posted on social media, the victim explained she was living with her mother and stepfather when the rape occurred. The victim relayed that because the rape resulted in pregnancy, her mother sent her to Lofa County to live with her grandmother, where she remained until she gave birth. Police confirmed that the victim was placed in the care of the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection.
On November 25, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection in collaboration with the Office of the First Lady and Partners officially launched the 16-Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence. It sought to ensure nationwide awareness in almost all communities of the country to promote the concept of preventing gender-based violence, advocate for the protection of women’s and girls’ rights in all sectors of the society through media engagement, and re-emphasize the fact that the solution to ending gender-based violence lies with all citizens.
From December 28 to December 31, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, in collaboration with the Child Protection Network and with support from the EU Spotlight Initiative, held a four-day Child Protection Awareness Campaign in five communities (Peace Island-540, Clara Town, New Kru Town, Soniwehn, and Brewersville Township) within Montserrado County. The awareness campaign focused on curtailing the number of rape cases, child labor, and harsh punishment instituted against children in homes, communities, and public and private locations. The campaign was also geared towards achieving the goals of the Government of Liberia and Partners Roadmap on Ending Sexual and Gender-Based Violence by 2022.
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, 9 percent of girls were married before age 15 and 36 percent before age 18.
With support from the EU Spotlight Initiative and the United Nations, the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection continued efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls, including sexual and gender-based violence and harmful practices such as child marriage. The campaign began in June 2019, when 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.
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. The law requires a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex trafficking offense, and therefore it does not criminalize all forms of child sex trafficking. 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 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.
Infanticide or Infanticide of Children with Disabilities: There were cases of infanticide. On July 15, the 8th Judicial Circuit Court in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, freed 19-year-old Jamesetta Bendu Tour after she spent 10 months in prison without trial. She was accused of throwing her 22-month-old baby into the St. John River in September 2019. According to reports, the court freed Tour because the state prosecutor failed to pursue the case after two successive terms of court. On September 25, Tour admitted that she did throw her child into the river after she was put out by her parents, but she later contradicted that statement by saying the baby fell into the river while she was washing.
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 street children, former child soldiers, and IDPs continued to live on the streets of Monrovia. Now adults, these homeless young individuals, who often suffered from 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 temporary shelter 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 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.
There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts against the country’s small Jewish community.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
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 had 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.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, 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 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. In October, two members of a group known for beating and humiliating persons suspected to be LGBTI were arrested and referred to the Monrovia City Court at Temple of Justice. Defendant Cheeseman Cole, believed to be the ringleader of the group, along with Emmanuel Tarpeh, were arraigned before Magistrate Jomah Jallah to answer to multiple offenses that included criminal attempt to commit murder and aggravated assault, among others. Cole and Tarpeh were later remanded at the Monrovia Central Prison to await prosecution after they could not secure a lawyer to process bail for their release. Cole, who was dishonorably discharged from the armed forces due to acts of criminality, faced allegations of brutality and torture against numerous young men he lured to his residence via Facebook over unfounded suspicion they were gay.
The Liberian Initiative for the Promotion of Rights, Identity, and Equality reported that in November 2019 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.
On November 12, OHCHR and UNDP published the Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Rights in Africa: Liberia Country Report. The report calls attention to challenges and abuses LGBTI individuals face in Liberia, including arbitrary detention, violence, discrimination, stigma, inequality, social exclusion, as well as the denial of rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The launch event was organized by the INCHR, with the approval of a number of LGBTI organizations. In the weeks following the report launch, several threats to the LGBTI community were reported, one allegedly emanating from a government official. The threats prompted a number of activists to seek relocation assistance.
LGBTI victims were sometimes afraid to report 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 police 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 police’s 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 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 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 small fine.
The most recent demographic and health survey (2019) found no measurable change since 2007 in popular attitudes, which remained broadly discriminatory, toward those with HIV. HIV-related social stigma and discrimination discouraged individuals from testing for their HIV status, thus limiting HIV prevention and treatment services. According to UNAIDS, an estimated 47,000 persons had HIV in the country during the year, with approximately 1,900 new cases reported annually. 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 police worked with civil society organizations to engage key populations.
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, 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.