Different but yet similar
I clearly remembered the day I was given a copy of an act to amend the new penal code of Liberia, Chapter 14 section 14.70, an amendment intended to provide for gang rape. The amendment was approved by our National Transitional Legislature Assembly in 2005 just after the crisis in my country that lasted for more than a decade where rape was used as a weapon of war against women and young girls. I was only 15 when this Act was approved but five years on I am now reading the act that is hardly effective and hardly talked about. You might be wondering which part of Chapter 14 I am talking about. This is it: Section 2 of Section 14.7-0 Chapter 14(b) of the New Penal Code of Liberia, which says “A person or persons has committed rape if the victim is less than eighteen years old, provided the actor is eighteen years of age or older”. In Section 4(a) it says “Rape is a felony of the first degree where the victim was less than 18 years of age at the time the offense was committed”. This act came into effect in 2006 but more than 4 years later, girls less than eighteen are still being forced to leave school and their childhood and enter into marriage. This act, according to the Penal Code stated above, is rape. What really touches me is the fact that no one hardly talks about it and many young women who are innocent of this act have to live the rest of their lives with men who are older, violent and abusive destroying their innocence and all hope of a better future.
It was a barely a month ago, while I was taking a walk with my friend in Red-light district, a busy commercial suburb outside Monrovia, and I felt something warm and soft pulling on my hand. When I turned around I saw a beautiful young girl about nine along with her brother who could be about 11, begging for money. The little girl politely asked me for money using signs to communicate with me since she couldn’t speak English. Well I turn my head east and west, meaning I never had anything to offer, and after few minutes of asking she finally left me and ran to another woman who was smartly dressed. A few blocks away I saw another group of women who looked exactly like the little girl and boy I had seen sitting on the ground with arms stretched out begging for alms. From their looks they did not look like typical West African. Being naturally curious I interviewed some knowledgeable friends who told me those people were from Somalia. Somalia is a country located in the horn of Africa that has seen more than its share of violence for more than two decades. With violence not seemingly ending soon many Somali migrants take the painful and risky journey by sea to peaceful regions some killed on the way. This is the journey that led them to Liberia. With begging being their only means of survival I found out something very interesting. There existed a string of command or bureaucracy among these Somalis. In most cases the kids were sent out to beg for money because they looked more appealing and had that look that you wouldn’t want to refuse them even if you tried.
While thinking of these Somalis migrants, I also realize that as a young woman who has had her share of education and is fed up with the fact that society has abandoned these young girls who dreamt of being doctors, lawyers, advocates and engineers but are forced to get married. I feel it is my responsibility to reach out to these young women letting them know they have a future and it is their right to say no to early marriage and subsequent early parenthood. With this realization I set out to find some of these young women forgotten by their society. I finally got to meet with Vivian. For Vivian, life was such a beautiful experience growing up with friends and getting educated until at age 15 she was forced to get married. She had to drop out of school, leaving behind all hopes of living a better future and never knowing the law was on her side and her husband could be charged for rape. If only she knew she wouldn’t be a mother of two at age 15 and living on handouts after escaping from an abusive and violent husband.
A few days after the incident with the little Somali girl, I saw another group of Somali looking people and it touched me that there might still be dozens of these people out there whose only occupation was begging. Another thing was that more than 80 percent of these Somalis were women and children. Questions came flooding to my mind. Where did they sleep? How did they get health care? What about these young women who could be raped or exploited? What if those children never have a future? Why were the government and International NGOs silent about their plights? With these questions in mind I set up on an investigative mission to get answers to my questions .It was then that I saw a young Somali woman pleading with a young man for something to eat. The young man replied, “Follow me to my house and I will give you money” meaning he would give her money only if she had sex with him. I had to intervene before this went too far. I offered to give her some money, giving her my last advice to stay away from men. With an innocent smile she said thank you or I thought. I went home feeling relieved that I had saved her from imminent danger, but my happiness was short lived as I realized that there were still many of these young women out there facing with similar situations and I wouldn’t be there at all times. The next day I saw this same young woman and we exchanged smile. From behind her smile, I felt there was something inside her begging for another life, a life full of opportunities, dreams, peace and hopes for a brighter future. What possibly could I give her but money? But as I sit writing this journal I feel proud and happy that now I could offer her more than just money.
Vivian then pops into the picture. What possibly can I do for her? She needs more than just physical assistance; she needs emotional assistance as well after years of neglect from society that should have protected her. Thinking of her as I write this article I remember her shy expressions and her reactions to the world she now lives in. She tells me, “At least young women like you can help us since society has forgotten us” You cannot imagine the pride I felt that day. Maybe the help she wants I cannot possibly give but with a big smile I told her ‘yes help is around”. I will never forget what she told me and as I write this journal I couldn’t forget about a strong woman like Vivian, who despite her past and her condition, could still give a smile.
How could society forget about such women? How could they turn their backs on them when they needed them most? With all the UN agencies in Liberia for refugees why were these Somalis who left their homes because of the crisis in their country still sleep on the streets and beg on a daily basis for survival? Are they the forgotten few? What if these young women are sexually violated? What if they are exposed to danger on a daily basis, what if they fall prey to traffickers and what if these children are kidnapped? What has happened to all the rights that should belong to women and children? What about the conventions on the rights of the child?
With these unanswered questions I write this journal knowing at the end we will find answers and impact the lives of these women who are different but have similar backgrounds. I feel happy that I can write about these forgotten women who sometimes see life as a nightmare.
I know you might be thinking this is not like the frontline journal we learned about, but when we were told to write a journal I couldn’t forget about these forgotten people who live in a society that pretends to fight for their rights and dignity but do not. They never had a voice but I am happy that I can give them a voice in my own way knowing that society will be drawn to their plight and come to their rescue, knowing that I am responsible to tell the plights to people out there, given the platform I have and knowing a problem talked about or discussed is already half- solved.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard from corners of the world.