This year's World AIDS Day orator says that if the HIV pandemic must be halted, the Liberian Government and its partners must prioritize the issues of sexual and gender based violence.
Serving as keynote speaker in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County on December 1 during official programs marking the commemoration of World AIDS Day, ActionAid Liberia’s Country Director Korto Reeves Williams told the gathering that unless we recognize the negative power that fuels violence against women and girls and invest in building systems and changing worldviews and political views that support discrimination of people-we will continue to state statistics and endure a problem that affects our national development.
Mrs. Williams intimated that sexual and gender-based violence is a major challenge in Liberia. She furthered that rape is the single most reported crime. She observed that although the amendment of the 2005 New Penal Code prohibits rape and gives strong penalties for gang rape and rape of minors (under 18 years old), it does not recognize spousal rape, although in a survey conducted by ActionAid, many women reported sexual violence from their husbands and partners. She disclosed there is now a law on Gender and Sexually Based Violence (2008) providing for a special court to try sexual violence crimes.
The ActionAid head regretted that traditional practices that affect women and girls’ health, access to opportunities and services, and violate their rights to sexual autonomy and bodily integrity continue with impunity with silence from donors, the government and civil society. She mentioned that the 1986 Constitution of Liberia criminalizes sex work (prostitution); nonetheless, many female youth have transactional sex, in addition to the existence of adult sex workers, due to poverty and lack of access to other resources and opportunities. They may therefore be vulnerable to prosecution (and therefore police violence and exploitation) but have no information concerning access to reproductive health commodities or about their sexual rights.
The ActionAid Country Director also noted that violence against women (VAW) in cities and public spaces is an urgent and relevant issue, and a major barrier to achieving targets set around zero infection. “The limited investment in gender-responsive public services reinforces this context”, she added. She pointed out that the crisis of silence and privilege affects sustainable development in that no partnership with Liberians-state or civil society or communities of people is sustainable without the exercise of agency and leadership from the people affected.
In order to address the above problems, the World AIDS Day keynote speaker proffered the following recommendations for the below actors:
· Expedite the harmonization of customary and statutory laws and ensure that women are a part of the process
· Ensure that the ongoing constitutional review process is used to address issues of access to justice
· Provide adequate human and financial resources to the INHRC and ensure that it complies with its mandate and is accountable to the people of Liberia
· Invest in the access to justice system to ensure that laws are implemented and that prevention mechanisms are built at community levels.
State and Civil Society
· Invest in a structural response that tackles the root causes of VAW and discrimination against key populations, such a socio-cultural norms and acts as preventive measure.
· Build coalitions of people living with HIV to enable them stand on the frontline and tell their stories. Strengthen their capacities without disempowering them to act and end HIV
· Break the silence by calling out discrimination, VAWG and an end of cultural practices that violate women’s rights
In concluding her World AIDS Day address, Mrs. Korto Reeves Williams told the gathering of more than 500 persons that a society that lacks political consciousness sees issues from a binary perspective. She believed that the public health crisis of HIV and VAWG interrogates on many levels issues related to power, class and development. She stated that accountability is at the centre of this crisis especially as it relates to provision of gender responsive public services. “Let us not be a people who condone inaction and promote silence around the violation of people’s rights. As we broke the silence more than a decade ago on HIV and its existence in Liberia; let’s break the silence to prevent HIV infections and move towards zero infection.”, Madam Willliams concluded.