Rape and Restorative Justice (via WireTap Magazine)

Reprinted from WireTapMag.org/ by Kameelah Rasheed

On July 16 in Phoenix, Arizona, four boys ages 9 to 14 took turns raping an 8-year-old girl for more than 10 minutes after luring her into a shed with chewing gum. They held her down. They raped her repeatedly as she screamed — “hysterical” screams that prompted an emergency call. When officers arrived on the scene, they found the girl partially clothed and the boys running from the shed.

The girl as well as her four rapists are refugees from Liberia in West Africa. The country is struggling to emerge from its 14-year civil war, which lasted from 1989 to 2003. During the conflict, rape was used as a weapon resulting in as many as 75 percent of Liberian women being raped.

The civil war forced more than 7,300 Liberians to seek refuge in the United States. One such community of refugees resettled in Arizona which is now home to nearly 1,200 Liberian refugees. As one reporter noted, “Liberian refugees who have fled the war-torn nation say the Phoenix case is a horrifying example of families trying to escape violence in their own country only to find it again in their new home.”

“Damaged Goods”

If the rape alone was not traumatizing enough, the 8-year-old’s family disowned her for fear that she would bring shame to the family. Phoenix Police Sgt. Andy Hill told the press, “The father told the case worker and an officer in her presence that he didn’t want her back. He said ‘Take her, I don’t want her.”‘ She was considered “damaged goods.”

Damaged goods are non-salvageable and thus unsalable. It’s a commerce term alluding to loss of commercial value. “Damaged goods” has migrated from its original meaning and is now used to stigmatize rape survivors.

“Damaged goods” are the disposable and unclean girls and women who can supposedly never be restored to full humanity. Rape victims often experience this kind of stigma repeatedly: There is the stigma experienced in medical and legal communities upon examination and reporting. There is the stigma brought on by the cultural and political norms. And then there is the stigma one experiences at the hands of family.

The young girl is now in the care of child protective services and the community is outraged by the family’s response. Social workers have offered cultural arguments to explain the family’s response, arguing that no matter how despicable it seems, in some African communities, women are blamed for their rape. This blame stems not only from the male community; some women hold similar views.

CNN affiliate KTVK interviewed the girl’s 23-year-old sister who expressed ambivalence. She is noted to have said, “I came to her and said it’s not good for you to be following guys because you are still little.” She also said that she wanted the suspects to be released from jail because “we are the same people” and that “[w]hen [my sister] comes back I’m going to tell her don’t ever do that again because all of us, we are the same family, we are from the same place. Now she is just bringing confusion among us. Now the other people, they don’t want to see her.”

While the sister (more so than the father) expressed concerned about the pain suffered by the young victim, issues of shame and keeping a fragile refugee community together even at the exclusion of a rape survivor seemed more important. She appeared hesitant about the publicity because it invited unwanted attention and further complicated the experiences of Liberian refugees. However, to heal and provide support for Liberian refugees, we must acknowledge that a problem exists. Sometimes, this means that “dirty laundry” will be aired, painful stories shared and judgment passed.

A President Speaks Out

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s first female president elected in 2006, commented on CNN by phone about the child’s experience and her family’s response stating that the family members “need serious counseling because, clearly, they are doing something that is no longer acceptable in our society here.” President Sirleaf’s harsh words still did not prompt a change in the family’s response. While rape was considered “normal” during the civil war, President Sirleaf has been on a crusade to end rape and tolerance of rape in Liberia. Sirleaf herself is a survivor of attempted rape.

In an interview between President Sirleaf, Liberia’s Ambassador to the United States, Milton Nathanial Barnes, and CNN correspondents, Sirleaf assured the public:

Let me say very clearly that rape is a problem in Liberia. This is why we have made rape a non-bailable offense. It is a criminal offense; there is a strong law regarding that to where offenders cannot even get bail.

Before 2006 and the passage of the rape law, rape was a bailable offense in Liberia. If a rape suspect was even arrested, he could be out of jail and back home the next day. Even with the passage of the Rape Law which addresses conditions not provided for in the old law — gang-rape, rape with objects, the rape of boys and the assault of children under the age of 18 — implementation has not easily translated into action on the ground.

As the United Nations Mission to Liberia notes, “Many rape suspects are in pre-trial detention with a small percentage of rape convictions recorded countrywide since the 2006 amendments.” This is in part due to the fact that there is not full support of the judiciary, the police and correctional services. So while it’s legally true that rape is not “tolerated in Liberia” any longer, there is an unfortunate gap between legal declarations and practices of implementation.

Rape, normalized during conflict, is often continued in the post-conflict environment. Consequently, rape law, especially in these “post-conflict nations“ must not simply focus on incarceration because it does not rehabilitate or rebuild communities. The incarceration of rapists must be coupled with initiatives to rebuild communities and provide psychological and emotional support for rape survivors as well as rapists.

President Sirleaf, who took a stringent stance against the rape, supports counseling for both the rape survivor and the young rapists. The 14-year-old boy was charged as an adult with two counts of sexual assault and kidnapping and is being held without bond. The other boys — ages 9, 10 and 13 were charged as juveniles with sexual assault. The 10- and 13-year-old boys were also charged with kidnapping.

In the aforementioned CNN interview, Sirleaf was asked whether she supported Steven Topay, the 14-year-old, being charged as an adult. She said:

If that’s what the laws of the United States dictate, then we’ll have to follow the law. I do hope, however, that there will be counseling introduced into whatever happens. These are also young people who clearly have their value systems wrong. It does come from the practices of war; many of them are also facing trauma from the war and are carrying on some of the same malpractices that were infringed upon them during the war.

They have to pay the penalty, but we also want to make sure that they are counseled so that whenever they have already done time or whatever it is in accordance with the law, that they too will have an opportunity to change and become useful citizens not only in the United States but when they return home.

Upon reading about the gang-rape of this 8-year-old child, most comments and letters to media outlets immediately called for the life-incarceration of these boys. Why should anyone have mercy on humans, irrespective of age, who would go as far as gang-raping a child? Even with years in the prison abolition and reform communities, my impulse was to lock up these boys.

Time welcomes reason, and President Sirleaf’s opinion should be carefully considered. The worst response to this situation is traditional punishment. This is not because the survivor and rapists are young or because we should have more sympathy for refugees, but because incarceration has never had the power to shift the culture of shame, remove stigma, rebuild communities, or confront the normalization of rape. Incarceration is designed to punish, not necessarily to heal or rebuild. It is a perverse pedagogy.

A Chance for Restorative Justice

There are many layers to this crisis. There is an 8-year-old girl who must live with the memories of her rape and her family’s abandonment. Four young boys who will have to confront their actions during prison time. A Liberian refugee community that must try to rebuild an already fragile existence. A larger international community that must rethink support services for the specific needs of Liberian refugees. And, a Liberian nation still must come to term with the enduring legacies of their country’s civil war.

Restorative Justice, even in cases of sexual assault (PDF) is advocated as a form of justice that rebuilds communities after a crisis because the emphasis is on the crime as an offense against human relationships, not solely against the state. Furthermore, through this restorative justice model, the first priority is to assist the survivor, rather than solely punish the offenders. The second priority is the restoration of the community as much as possible. Models differ, but strategies such as family group conferencing, reintegration services, survivor-offender mediation and survivor support services often operate parallel to the traditional justice system.

There is surely a long road ahead, and President Sirleaf is correct in asserting that both survivor and rapists must be counseled so that “they too will have an opportunity to change and become useful citizens not only in the United States but when they return home.” The goal is not simply to punish but to restore everyone so that they can be reintegrated with their communities. We do not know if the 8-year-old girl can ever return home. We do not know which wounds can be healed.

7 Comments to ‘Rape and Restorative Justice (via WireTap Magazine)’:

  1. Olokun Olugbala on 16 Aug 2009 at 1:06 pm: 1

    Excellent commentary…This was functional and necessary. More attention needs to be turned to the maladaptive behaviors (like rape) of white supremacy that black folk have adopted in Liberia, The Congo, America and all over the globe.

    Internalized white supremacy and systematic oppression often necessitate that we ravage each other and turn our communities into habitats of horror and bedlam.

    Restorative Justice will be paramount for oppressed black communities everywhere if we truly seek to heal and renew ourselves.

    Thanks again for this article and the necessary questions posed.

    Love and Struggle…Work and Study,
    Olokun Shangol Olugbala

  2. Deen on 16 Aug 2009 at 2:28 pm: 2

    What a tragic story.

    I completely agree that prisons are not designed to rehabilitate, which is clearly what these young men need. The families could also use some rehab.

    Patriarchy is truly sinister. When rape victims are labeled as “Damaged Goods,” it reveal the extent to which their bodies are being commodified in their communities. The real “damaged goods” are the families. Where is the support system, the community accountability, where are the elders? Perhaps they were all lost in the civil war.

    We’re all victims, when this bizarre ideology permeates the minds of our brothers and sisters. Thank goodness, Libera has a progressive female President who is dedicated to eradicating this disease. I only hope she can build the grassroots support she needs to help enforce her policy on a national scale.

  3. sokari on 17 Aug 2009 at 10:50 am: 3

    This story is from Liberia – a country trying very hard to rebuild and heal itself from years of extreme violence of many kinds and layers.

    I recently watched a documentary by the Sierra Leone award winning journalist Sorious Samura investigating gang rape in UK (though the focus was inner London). (I did write a post on this on my blog) Samura who has personally witnessed horrific acts of violence in his home country was himself shocked at the misogynist violence taking place against mostly young Black women by young Black men in London’s streets and council estates. 108 reported gang rapes in London last year and note most go unreported – and about 92 convictions which if based on 108 is considerably high. My point here is that many of the rapers and their victims were as young as 14/15. I cannot see how incarceration can rebuild these young boys lives on the contrary I fear imprisonment will reinforce their misogyny and will introduce them to new crimes.

    However, of most concern are the young girls who are being raped and gang raped. Those who spoke in the programme were completely broken with no support from the social services, police, medical profession or housing dept. Many had to continue living next door to their rapists or attending the same schools. So for them the rape continued – day in day out as they were taunted by their rapists and other young boys. How will these young women ever heal in this kind of environment where they are demeaned, humiliated, violated by their peers and the institutions which should be supporting them? What happens to those who are pregnant from the rapes – I have to stop. There is so much that could be done to support the young women and as for the boys – I have little space for them in the scheme of things.

  4. wanneh on 18 Aug 2009 at 11:51 am: 4

    Please note that Liberia did have a rape law prior to 2006; however, it was merely a collection of words on paper. It’s true that prior to the passing of the new rape law in 2006, rape was a bailable offense – if reported at all.

    Rape was a problem in Liberia prior to the civil war that started in 1989; it just became more visible during the war because it is globally recognized as a tool of war. It’s rather unfortunate that, even though the war has ended, rape is still a huge problem – often practiced without impunity.

    Those boys were raised to believe that there’s nothing criminal about what they did. They are now realizing that ignorance of the law is no excuse, and they live in a country where there is no tolerance for their actions against that poor little girl.

    Although Liberia has a new rape law which the president purports to stand behind, there is insufficient judicial support or political will to truly make a difference. There are so many girls in Liberia – many younger than the girl in Arizona – who are rape victims. They are not fortunate enough to have the medical, legal, and social resources and support systems that the Arizona victim might have. And because they are not under the international radar, the President and other government officials and diplomats will do nothing for or about them. What a pity…

  5. kameelah on 18 Aug 2009 at 6:01 pm: 5

    thanks for the comments everyone.

    to wanneh: yes, liberia did have a rape law prior to 2006 and to my knowledge the difference between pre 2006 and post 2006 is that you can no longer be bailed out of jail if you were accused of rape as you were pre-2006. additionally, there have been changes as far as gang rape, rape of men, rape with objects, etc.

    i want to echo sokari’s thoughts. i am most concerned about the support provided for the rape survivors. in thinking about refugees here in america, what supports are provided for these particular communities? counseling services that provide a “universal” approach do not address the particular historical and cultural needs of these communities. i am still not sure how i feel about the young men…

  6. Stephen on 19 Aug 2009 at 4:42 pm: 6

    Hello Olukun:) being White I feel deeply compelled to extend my deepest regrets for the rape I committed using my gaggle of prepubescent liberian proxies.

    That aside, I stumbled upon this blog looking for any “soft research” (online thoughts ect) by the Black Academic community vis-a-vis H1N1 & A1N1 flu. I was looking over the WHO infection patterns for both and noticed some rather distinct geographical constraints not fully explained by respective health-policies and population movements. Also, Dr. Adrian Gibbs from the University of Melbourne submitted a paper to the WHO outlining his argument for the synthetic manufacture of the current “swine-flu,” emphasizing his hypothesis that this is a lab escape and not a product of the natural evolutionary patterns of influenza strains. He helped design Tamiflu, has published over 250 papers!!! and has not been back on T.V since. No professional response has been posited by the WHO in response to Dr. Gibbs to date.
    Basically, labs aren’t barns right. So to me it appears there are several options:
    1) Dr. “A” somehow forgets all basic lab protocols and porkulosis springs for the hills.
    2) H1N1 Swineflu somehow is naturally occurring whilst concurrently defying all known laws of virological development. Showing distinct changes across all alleles in it’s genetic code at once. As opposed to adapting one or two “traits” over time (virus time) and slowly keeping those that increase survival, eventually becoming a distinct organism from it’s ancestor as occurs in all other forms of evolution. This is a portion of Dr. Gibbs theory. Basically, a chimp won’t give birth to a human, but chimps have evolved into humans over time.
    3) Our current socio-economic model has given rise to an event wherein “big-pharma” has released a bug to revive sagging vaccine sales, forcing governments to spend millions replenishing stocks that up to a year ago they were trying to unload.
    4) (extreme possibility) A Malthusian Catastrophe (also why I’m here in the first place) .
    Population trajectories will exceed the carrying capacity of planet earth and governments are experimenting with ways to “cull” the population and maintain homeostasis. Preventing wars over resources and political upheavals in response to governments inabilities to provide for all properly. A flu may accomplish this and allow blame to fall on “mother nature.” Given the track-record of oppression and the propensity of Black populations to be the target of such endeavors. Has anyone taken the time to at least conduct a cursory review of this extreme possibility? I’ve noticed a lot of self-censorship on this matter, from my experience the only major factor that will make a “scientist” self-censure is even stronger and scarier science that demands they keep quiet. Example: Neurologists not disclosing the risk of neurological disorders, even death, presented by the vaccine for H1N1, in order to prevent public panic and vaccine refusal.
    Sorry for the length of this, it’s possibly me just getting ahead of myself. I have heard of an evolutionary biologist Named Eric Pianka (University of Arizona) stating humanity needs to cull 90% of itself to maintain future viability, and he got a standing ovation from the audience:( He explicitly stated an ebola might work but was highly transmittable, he then mentioned flu. Additionally, he also worked as a policy advisor in washington.
    Keep your “ears-up” so to speak.

  7. Elijah on 21 Aug 2009 at 3:01 am: 7

    YEAH STEPHEN I get it..kind of like The TUSKEGEE SYPHILLIS STUDY, which was “arguably the most infamous biomedical research study in U.S. history! That led to the 1979 Belmont Report and the establishment of the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP!) It also led to federal regulation requiring Institutional Review Boards for protection of human subjects in studies involving human subjects.

    Long story short..when you scientists start putting your nimble brains together..BLACK PEOPLE DIE!

    Stick with the culture, if you care to join the community..FUCK YOUR SCIENTIFIC GENOCIDAL THEORIES..

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Published on August 16, 2009 at 11:33 am. 7 Comments.
Filed under Africa,diaspora,family,Uncategorized,women's issues/feminism.