We Remain Unprotected in Liberia: Hashtag Activism, Government Inaction and Violence against Women

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Activism on social media in Africa can be attributed to the expansion of the internet and the youthful population. Africa’s youth (ages 15-24) account for one-fifth of the world’s population, and the U.N projects 1.3 billion by 2030 (UN, 2017). With this large youth population, it is no surprise that movements for social, political, and economic change are becoming digital. Transnational social movements use digital platforms as a major tool for mobilization and demonstration (Langman, 2005). Coalitions formed online are often tied to the common interest of social justice. Global movements such as #MeToo (USA), #Stopfundinghate (U.K.), and #Viajosola (Ecuador) were all once just hashtags. In Africa, social movement and activism became global hashtags, such as #Bringbackourgirls (Nigeria), #Endrapeculture (South Africa), #SudanUprising (Sudan), and #WeAreUnprotected (Liberia), which then developed into global coalitions. These coalitions are critical to conversations about global injustice and equality. These coalitions also expose the disconnect between government and leadership in acting in the interest of vulnerable populations.

In Liberia, thousands of demonstrators under the banner #EndRape and #WeAreUnprotected staged several protests in response to the increasingly high number of rape and sexual violence affecting women. These protests influenced the Liberian government to declare rape a national emergency in 2020 (Al Jarzeera News, 2020; Rodriquez, 2020). After that, however, the government took no concrete actions. As a result, women continued to be raped, perpetrators continued to get away without consequences, and things essentially remained the same.  I argue that for three years, Liberia’s subsequent inaction has been another form of violence. Liberian women continue to be unprotected by their government and society.

 

Cyberactivism

The internet facilitates social movement cyberactivism across platforms. Online activism, or cyberactivism, defined as actions and campaigns that aim to influence public opinion on major ongoing social or political processes (IGI, 2021), hasconsiderable power in influencing behaviors and attitudes and structural changes in society. From elections to laws and policies, online activism can mirror the happenings of communities and even intimate spaces, as the conversations across platforms tend to spill into boardrooms, academic spaces, and sometimes, into action. Social movement theory recognizes the implications of globalizing trends and how they affect collective action (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). Within the last few years, online movements like the #MeToo movement have emerged from an intimate and usually private space of sharing stories about sexual abuse and sexual harassment. The movement later grew to influence many other survivors to share their stories, highlighting the magnitude of the problems and the need for change. Within the conversation of contemporary online social movements is the role of technology as a tool to mobilize people in their fight to initiate change. Technology makes it possible for ordinary citizens to access information and resources promptly while calling on others to act (or not act) with just a click of a button.

 

#WeareUnprotected

The focus and impacts of social media activism on public policy are seen around the world. At the same time as the #WeAreUnprotected movement in Liberia, COVID-19 and the ongoing global health crisis were fueling another movement against injustice. In Nigeria, global protests and demonstrations like the #EndSARS movement called for actions against police injustices and lawlessness; in the U.S., the #BlackLivesMatter movement focused on police brutality targeting African Americans. These hashtags represented ideas for real-world advocacy to reform and change the status quo. The #EndRape and #WeareUnprotected movements in Liberia were similarly calling on leadership to change the status quo.

Liberia, a small West African nation of a little over 4 million people is still burdened by the weight of civil war recovery. Along with the many atrocities of wars, sexual violence and rape are lingering horrors from Liberia’s past. Liberia’s rape laws have made rape a non-bailable offense, but there are no stringent actions against perpetrators despite the frequency (Sieh, 2020) and cases are rampant.

Liberia’s cyberactivism was therefore a battle against rape and sexual violence. When the NGO Liberia’s Women Empowerment Network reported that between June and August 2020 there were 600 documented cases of rape (AFP, 2020), Liberian women responded with a massive protest, which called for thousands of Liberians, primarily women, from across the country and the diaspora to speak up about rape and sexual violence. This issue was nothing new to the country. Liberia’s high incidences of rape are in part a legacy of the brutal 14-year civil war. To make these incidences worst, the latest U.N Report before the protest found that only 2% of rape and other sexual violence cases led to a conviction. The protest lasted 3 days in and around the capital of Monrovia and was led primarily by two recognizable social media hashtags: #EndRape and #WeareUnprotected.

As newer stories and headlines on rape in Liberia emerged, social media activism became an avenue for advocacy. Young people began to carry stories of rape and sexual assault of Liberian women from communities into the streets, soon becoming the hashtag #WeAreUnprotected. Liberian women under the banner of the Liberian Feminist Forum (LFF) called out the government and policy leaders through their “Thursday in Black” activism. Liberian women who were part of the LFF network wore black outfits every Thursday and called on other women to do the same to bring attention to the increased sexual violence across the country. Members of LFF organized massive sit-ins at government offices and eventually sixteen days of activism (Medica, 2018). The activism included a candlelight vigil and poetry reading, which highlighted the resilience of Liberian women and also the vulnerability of women in societies across the world. As the Thursday in Black campaign was going on, more communities across Liberia mobilized, leading to a three-day protest. The protesters gathered wearing all-black clothing with signs of the hashtags #WeAreUnprotected and #EndRape. Those hashtags along with blank black images on social media pages in solidarity with the protesters quickly became recognizable.

The #WeareUnprotected movement first grew out of a case where Liberian school girls were violated by staff from an international NGO, More Than Me. A ProPublica report detailed over 30 cases of schoolgirls in the care of this international NGO who were subjected to sexualized assault (Young, 2018). Liberia’s war history reveals that between 61.4 and 77.4 percent of women and girls in Liberia were raped during the civil wars (WHO, 2016). The issue of rape unites people across Liberia in ways that made the #WeareUnprotected and #EndRape hashtag easy to support. People online soon joined in pledging support and solidarity and were using the hashtag to share stories of other women and plans for protection. Notable Liberian women, Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and fellow Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee, also added their voices in online solidarity. Young Liberians in the diaspora mobilized online through Instagram (@LiberianKillingIt) and dedicated their pages to sharing lived experiences of Liberian women. Other people shared petitions calling for change, including one advocating for budget allocation to strengthen the judicial system for speedy trials of rape cases (Karmo, 2020). The voices of Liberian women against sexual violence echoed from online spaces to the streets.

Following this widespread protest and social media activism, the Liberian government through President George Weah enacted a series of measures and declared rape a national emergency (Al Jazeera, 2020; Rodriquez, 2020). President Weah’s declaration of rape as a national emergency was followed immediately by a 2-day National Anti-Rape and Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Conference that was convened by top government officials. At the conference, a promise to establish a national sex offender registry and other actions were presented in detail, but the inaction that would follow spoke volumes.

 

(In)Action of the Government of Liberia 

Although the Liberian government, following the outcry online and the street protests, declared rape a national emergency, this kind of declaration was no stranger to other countries in Africa. In 2020, Nigeria also declared rape a national emergency after a string of high-profile rape and killings of young women (Durosomo, 2020). Also, in Sierra Leone, horrific sexual violence cases involving minors led to President Maada Bio declaring a national emergency (O’Grady, 2019). For Liberia, President George Weah’s declaration outlined measures that included the appointment of a special prosecutor for rape, the establishment of a National Sex Offender Registry, a national security taskforce on SGBV, and the allotment of an initial amount of US$2 Million to help fight against rape and SGBV in the country. These measures were announced at a two-day conference with the president’s special cabinet (MOF, 2021). However, nearly three years following the president’s declaration, there have been no appointments of special prosecution for rape, the sex offender registry, or the establishment of a national security task force on SGBV. The allotment of funds to fight SGB that was promised is nowhere to be found. This inaction of the Liberian government not only speaks to the failure and neglect of issues involving women and girls, but it further perpetuates violence against women.

 

Discussion

The lack of action from the Liberian government even after months of street and online protests is a form of violence mainly due to the continued increase in rape cases across the country, according to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights and the U.S. Human Rights report of 2022. As rape cases increase, sadly, the #WeAreUnprotected movement and hashtags have decreased. Online activism has been vital to extending the reach of intimate and community conversation, and the movement got the concerns onto the national stage, but is it enough to influence political action and social change?  The state inaction is a violent action of neglect, and the President’s self-imposed title of “Feminist-in-chief” only adds insult to injury. It is clear that the issue of rape is not taken seriously even when Liberian women and allies kick and scream through mass protests. The reality remains that Liberian women’s fight for social justice has yet to be taken on by government policies.

Online campaigns have the potential to make local and personal issues into national issues and to motivate critical conversations to take place in community spaces, but this does not necessarily mean impact. Unfortunately, online momentum could potentially lead to even more violence through inactions from policy leaders. Clearly the fight does not stop with hashtags as social media is only the megaphone to amplify the movement for social change. Liberians, and social justice activists everywhere, need more than declarations and announcements that lead nowhere. For cyberactivism to be transformed into policy changes, policy leaders must be willing to join the groundwork and grassroots efforts. To simply make public declarations without an intent to follow through is contemptuous of the groundwork of community organizers and further perpetuates violence. The violence of rape and other SBGV is that it robs people of their right to have and enjoy healthy intimacy at home and with families. To blatantly ignore this violence and war against intimacy is an attack not only on women but also on the very foundation of society: the family. The Liberian government’s inaction and neglect of their resolutions send a message to Liberian women and girls that they are not a priority, and their most intimate space remains vulnerable.

 

 

 

References

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