Sexual Coincidences and the Attacks on Liberian Womanhood

By Ezekiel Pajibo

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

May 7, 2004

Liberian journalists have been busy of late trying to get exoneration for plausible charges of breaching obscenity regulations. Meanwhile, in South Africa, a group of Africans met at a conference to discuss “Sexual Health and Rights.” The conference addressed issues about sexuality in Africa and the use of sex as a weapon of war. The sexual coincidences here include the fact that Liberia, coming out of a vicious civil war, is now beginning to grapple with the breakdown in social morality, especially those related to sex and sexuality, while Africans are generally now beginning to confront the issues of sexuality, violence and power. This is a particularly interesting development given the proclivity of African leaders and publics to make sex and sexuality taboo areas for discussion.

A local daily, the Heritage (February 16, 2004), ran a story in which it reported that Liberian women and girls were video taped while engaging in conjugal relations with dogs. Liberian women organizations reacted energetically to the story and accused the paper and its source, the Speaker of the National Transitional Legislative Assembly of contributing to a national attitude that blames women for immorality and indecencies, while seemingly letting men off the hook for their role, which in many cases serve the needs of men to exercise force, control and power.

The response from a number of papers is uniformed and interesting. It goes like this. Why are the women complaining? They should know this was happening. By the way, why are they not protesting the skimpy clothes young women wear in and around Monrovia? Don’t they see all the half dressed women on Broad Street? This logic goes on and suggests that indeed our women are immoral given the way they “flaunt” themselves in public spaces. Not only is it mostly men who say this but an appreciable amount of women buy into this misshapen logic. A close friend of mine noted that a colleague impudently said to her that “all married women are hopeless [hobojo]”. Her reply was “who are they sleeping with?” Indeed, who are they sleeping with? There is a male culture of denial and entitlement. The American call this having your cake and eating it too. The idea that it takes “two to tango” does not readily come to bear on the lewd way most men view and treat women in our society.

This form of reasoning is twisted because the conditions that may have led Liberian women to take part in a video tape in which they were reportedly having sex with dogs is a function of the Liberian war years, the desperation occasioned by the war and the serious breakdown of social norms. In addition, the criminalization of our governance structures, collapsed economy and concentration of too many people in an overcrowded space with too few options, a condition is set for decadence and exploitation. This rather pitiable state of affairs is the creation of brutish men who are impelled to use force, coercion and violence to achieve their debauched sense of worth and the exercise of illegitimate claims to power. Male chauvinism in Liberia hits you between the eyeballs and it is shameful and reprehensible!

The President of the Press Union of Liberia, Terrance Sesay, demonstrated this disgraceful attitude when he reportedly said that the Heritage staff should be spared legal action since they have “suffered enough.” (The New National, February 26, 2004). It is like saying, that the burglar who broke into your house and stole your belongings, goes out and sells them, comes back and tells you he is sorry and should therefore be allowed to go scot-free. Whatever happened to accountability? Mr. Sesay’s glib statement comes against the background in which sex in Liberia and especially during the war years, was used as a weapon. All human rights reports on the country and concerns raised by women organizations point to the irrefutable fact that rape and gang rape were common features of the war and a major means of imposing fear and control.

Currently, Liberian women are reportedly being raped in areas controlled by a number of the warring factions. The insensitivity that is being demonstrated regarding the legitimate grievances of Liberian women in relations to sexual exploitation, sexual slavery, demonization of women and the related degradation is appalling. It is unfortunate that media leaders, who admit that the Heritage newspaper breached not only ethics but the law, are insisting that a member of their fraternity not be held accountable. If the media wants to keep public officials accountable, they should learn to also be accountable to the public, the sooner they realize that double standards is unacceptable the better it would be for the nation.

According to the newspaper report, women who allegedly participated in the videotape were each paid US$400. Instead of interrogating the economic and social conditions, which compel young women and girls to subject themselves to this rather demeaning way of earning incomes, media leaders appear to be blaming the victims. A number of men I spoke to including, a man of the cloth, a politician and male sidewalk peddlers [yahna boys], all responded by pointing to the supposed immorality of women. None of them mentioned the culpability of men and that in fact men have singularly benefited from the breaches of our social norms given the control and power they wield in our society – their massive failures in statecraft notwithstanding..

The politicians on the other hand are being their usual coy selves. The Speaker of National Transitional Assembly, George Dweh, who broke the story to the press suggested that the conversation was off the record, not meant for public consumption and therefore would not “apologize.” This was an apparent response to the concerns raised by a number of women organizations in which they raised the issue that the Speaker was contributing to the debasement of Liberian womanhood. Speaker Dweh said that he would seek to investigate the concerns the newspaper publication generated. That is yet to happen.

The Ministry of Justice correctly took legal action against the publisher of the newspaper. Some of those charged reported themselves to the law, and were subsequently released on bail, a refreshing novelty in these times. The trail took place and the male judge ruled in favour of the journalists largely due to the Ministry of Justice inability to pay close attention to the details of the case and competently pursue a successful outcome.

Elsewhere, Africans in South Africa held a major conference on sexuality. One general consensus reached was that “sexual rights”, and our sexuality are “fundamental human rights” and should not be abused. Once abused, those responsible must be brought to justice. The media should play a responsible role in helping Liberian men to “manage their sexual urges and responsibilities,” and stop the exploitation of women while at the same time blaming them for our moral lapses. More germane to our national sense of morality however, is to prevent the debasement of womanhood. Our mistreatment of our women, domestic violence, rape and vulgarity against women must be stopped and/or disallowed. This can be accomplished by formulating and advocating for public policies that are responsive to the needs of women, and seek the enforcement of those policies which protect women rights. This will come about when we as a nation stop blaming the victims, it can be accomplished by questioning our social and economic systems which lend credence to the actions and behaviours of its citizens, even if and when those actions breach our sense of morality. These are the new challenges of our times and we must soberly, informedly and justly respond to them. On February 27, 2004 a Liberian wrote a letter to the BBC Network Africa Broadcast at 6:30 A.M. and said that our “liberators” are now wearing the “shoes of Charles Taylor.” Need I say any more?