It is a dis­turbing truth that sexual– and gender-​​based vio­lence (SGBV) is used as a war tactic in devel­oping nations. Silvia Dominguez, assis­tant pro­fessor of soci­ology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, recently vis­ited Liberia to help develop a national mental health policy related to SGBV. Here, she dis­cusses Liberia’s cur­rent cli­mate and offers exam­ples of changes that can help pre­vent this vio­lence and heal its victims.

Can you describe Liberia’s his­tory of sex– and gender-​​based violence?

It is a sig­nif­i­cant problem in all soci­eties recov­ering from serious armed con­flict. These cul­tures have changed through mil­i­ta­riza­tion, which affects gender-​​based rela­tions, increasing the like­li­hood of sexual– and gender-​​based violence.

Since the sys­tem­atic raping of women is now a war strategy, the problem has been aggra­vated. This not only involves sys­tem­at­i­cally trau­ma­tizing vic­tims but also the tar­geting of women who are iden­ti­fied as pil­lars of com­mu­ni­ties. In this way, not only women and chil­dren are affected, but also the com­mu­ni­ties in which they live. This makes recovery from armed con­flict more difficult.

As a post-​​conflict society, the majority of women and girls in Liberia are vic­tims of SGBV. While rapists were ostra­cized in the com­mu­nity before the armed con­flict, norms about sexual con­duct and rela­tion­ships with women and chil­dren have changed, and now it is the women and chil­dren who, as vic­tims, are ostra­cized in the community.

SGBV cur­tails the edu­ca­tion of girls since teachers are among the top per­pe­tra­tors. Girls attending school are at sig­nif­i­cant risk from SGBV. As a result, many par­ents try to marry off their young girls before they are raped. Of course, this also cur­tails the edu­ca­tion of girls.

You recently spent time in Liberia to help develop a mental health policy. Your focus was on SGBV. What were some of your recommendations?

Liberia has two sys­tems of jus­tice, the com­mu­nity system and the legal system. Cur­rently, there is more trust in the com­mu­nity system than in the legal system, but the country is trying to improve the legal system to encourage greater trust. One thing they are doing is cre­ating a sep­a­rate court that deals specif­i­cally with SGBV cases. They are also training the police and those who work in the court system to improve both their level of pro­fes­sion­alism in dealing with cases of SGVB and the way they gather evi­dence for these cases.

Mental health treat­ment must be pro­vided according to the severity of symp­toms fol­lowing SGBV. The types of psy­cho­log­ical treat­ment cur­rently used in Liberia are appro­priate only for people who have low-​​level symp­toms. New pro­grams of treat­ment need to be imple­mented where spe­cially trained clin­i­cians work to empower the sur­vivors of SGBV and con­nect them with others in their com­mu­nity. These pro­grams also have to include the entire family of the SGVB victim, since they are all affected.

In addi­tion, there should be codes of con­duct that lay out the rules of cor­rect behavior across gender in a manner that guar­an­tees the rights of women, chil­dren and men. These should include man­dated reporting poli­cies. When per­pe­tra­tors of SGVB are reported and con­victed, they must be man­dated to enter treat­ment and ser­vice pro­grams. Social workers must acquire the clin­ical skills nec­es­sary to be able to work with both man­dated and vol­un­tary clients, as well as with women and girls who have been vic­tims of SGBV. Steps must be taken toward the devel­op­ment of a forensic clinic respon­sible for teaching, treating, eval­u­ating and researching the inter­sec­tion of mental health and the law.

Safety zones in schools are essen­tial, given the fact that teachers are among the top three sexual abusers, and that girls require safety in order to remain in school. Liberia must work towards the estab­lish­ment of zero tol­er­ance policy on the vio­la­tions of human rights, including rape and sexual exploita­tion in schools.

The Asso­ci­a­tion of Female Lawyers in Liberia, who spear­headed the intro­duc­tion of the SGBV court and crime unit, is also iden­ti­fying and training men to reach out and train other men in their com­mu­ni­ties on SGBV. The emphasis on men is a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of cre­ating a cul­tural change in nor­ma­tive behav­iors that moves away from vio­lence against women and children.

What changes must be imple­mented in order to see pos­i­tive change in post-​​conflict nations?

In times of armed con­flict, NGOs play a piv­otal role in securing the con­tin­u­a­tion of basic ser­vices that safe­guard the pop­u­la­tion. As a result, people become depen­dent on NGOs for sur­vival. In post-​​conflict soci­eties, these NGOs need to change the role they play in the nation, to empow­er­ment. This is dif­fi­cult since the pop­u­la­tion has become depen­dent, but it is nec­es­sary. It also will aid in the sys­tem­atic empow­er­ment of the entire society. Funding orga­ni­za­tions need to insist on NGOs not just deliv­ering ser­vices but also devel­oping the capacity of the native pop­u­la­tion to take care of their own needs.

To learn more about the Depart­ment of Soci­ology and Anthro­pology at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, visit: http://​www​.socant​.neu​.edu/​i​n​d​e​x​.​php