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.”
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.