A new report released this week by ActionAid International outlines the serious challenges that young women in Liberia face on a daily basis. A multi-country report, Women and the City: Examining the gender impact of violence and urbanisation explores the violence and abuse that women in Brazil, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Liberia and Nepal encounter on a daily basis in urban communities. The Liberia research specifically focuses on the systematic experiences of violence young Liberian women suffer during their studies at university and whilst travelling to and from campus.
A long brutal history of conflict within Liberia has resulted in Liberian women still suffering from serious forms of violent behaviour. Cities and urban spaces continue to become increasingly unsafe for women for various reasons such as lack of infrastructure, basic street lighting and safe transportation.
Liberia's women not only have to cope with these physical hindrances, but also have to deal with prevailing attitudes that normalise and accept sexual violence. In Liberia rape is only considered a serious offence in cases of non-sexually active individuals, cases of rape and violence against sexually active women is very rarely addressed. The common belief expressed from both men and women is that male violence is excusable and caused by women wearing provocative clothes such as short skirts or low cut tops.
Although violence against women cuts across every sector of today's Liberian society, ActionAid's report focuses particularly on the violence experienced by young university women. Three universities were chosen as case studies: University of Liberia, Cuttington and African Methodist University. Sexual harassment and assault were reported widely across all universities from male teachers, faculty and students. Transactional sex or "sex for grades" appeared as a major theme across all the universities, with many female students having encountered some form of harassment from their male tutor.
One female student at AMEU recounts "I was asked to go and visit my instructor at his house one night, I refused and now I am repeating a course because he did not give me the grade at the end."
Although intimidation from male teachers severely holds back women's education in Liberia to a degree that is not experienced by male students, the findings show that exploitation of power to demand sex for grades is not considered to be a form of violence.
Rape and fear of were commonly reported experiences among many female students. One female student in her early thirties and studying business described witnessing a date rape. "I had seen her earlier in a short jeans skirt and she was drinking alcohol. Later the boys gave her soup that was drugged. When I came back I saw her on the floor lying with only her blouse on with burst condoms around her, she seemed unconscious. I assumed that she had been raped."
The research also shows that the majority of violence experienced whilst on and traveling to campus is committed by men known to the women, such as partners, professors and fellow class mates. The impact of such violence on women include major psychological effects such a fear, anxiety, humiliation, reduced self confidence, unplanned pregnancies, loss of focus at school with some students even dropping out.
Security across the universities was very limited and there was an outright discrepancy between the three. University of Liberia, which is publicly funded, is the least secure of all and proved to have the highest proportion of poorer students receiving scholarships and the highest reports of rape. Both AMEU and Cuttington have 24 hour security guards.
To date in Liberia, no specific policies or measures relating to the safety of university students have been put in place at any of the universities or at national level. Korto Williams, Country Director for ActionAid Liberia believes there needs to be a local and national focus to ensure the safety of young women attending university.
Korto states: "The unspoken result of the research highlights the need to make national gender documents functional and effective. It is imperative that our national system on women's rights make use of strategic documents, including the National GBV Action Plan, in non-traditional areas such as academic institutions and with transportation groupings and networks. This action will ensure safety, protection and realization of rights for university students and all women in Liberia."
As well as encouraging government and local level duty bearers to recognise and take more responsibility for the many safety risks women face, ActionAid Liberia hopes this initiative will empower young women to advocate for the types of changes they hope to see in their cities and within their university community.