On July 16, an eight-year-old girl was raped in Phoenix, Arizona. As the details of the case unfolded, it became clear that this was not an isolated case of violence and sexual assault.
Allegedly, four boys aged nine, 10, 13 and 14 (one of who is her cousin) lured the victim into a storage shed by promising her gum and then proceeded to sexually assault her for 10 to 15 minutes, when neighbors called the authorities after hearing the young girl screaming.
The girl has since been taken into protective custody by the state, since her family claims that they no longer want her to live with them because she has brought shame to the family. Although her father denies that he ever claimed that he did not want his daughter back, the Phoenix authorities are still investigating the incident in order act in the victim’s best interests.
While the girl’s father says that he wants his daughter back, the victim’s mother and sister have a very different perspective on what happened. When interviewed, the victim’s mother adamantly denied that anything had happened to her daughter. On the other hand, the victim’s 23-year-old sister who was babysitting at the time believes that the rape occurred, but blames her sister for what happened to her. The older sister claims that her younger sister always “brings trouble” and that she had already been warned not to go around “following guys.” What this older sibling seems to be forgetting, however, is that her younger sister was not actually following the “guys” themselves. She only wanted chewing gum that they had promised her.
When asked if she wants the boys to be allowed to leave jail, the victim’s sister exclaimed, “Yeah!” with, perhaps, a little too much conviction. She claimed that the boys should be set free because they are Liberian refugees like the victim’s family and like many of the other Liberians living in the victim’s neighborhood. The victim’s older sibling asserted that the boys are “the same people” and that her younger sister is “just bringing confusions” into the Liberian enclave in which they live.
So far, it seems that the girl’s family will go to almost any lengths to avoid any type of confrontation with other members of their Liberian community. In a way, this makes sense. After fleeing from a country still reeling from decades of civil war and political unrest, it seems that the natural inclination for all Liberian refugees would be to strive for peace and support each other in a country in which they are minority. The problem arises, however, because of the fact that the family seems willing to sacrifice one of their own in order to maintain peace within their community. In this sense, the legacy of war resurfaces, as an innocent eight-year-old girl becomes collateral damage.
CNN reported that Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that the girl’s family members "need serious counseling because, clearly, they are doing something that is no longer acceptable in our society here." The fact that the President describes the girl’s family’s actions as “no longer acceptable” raises a red flag. Since when has it ever been acceptable to shun the victim of a crime simply for being exploited?
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that a female victim has been penalized for being a victim and it will surely not be the last. Who can forget the headlines from November 2008, when a Somalian girl was buried up to her neck and stoned to death before a crowd of 1,000 people after telling authorities that she had been raped by three men?
What is even more astonishing is the fact that the two family members openly denounced the victim were the girl’s mother and sister – two women! Although it seems counterintuitive, women are often responsible for upholding sexist traditions and trends and allowing them to continue. For example, girls in cultures in which female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation or FGM) is practiced are often most encouraged by their mothers to undergo the procedure. A mother’s reasoning behind having her daughter circumcised is simple. Since FGM is a part of the culture, it must be practiced to preserve the culture – no questions asked.
Although Liberian culture is not necessarily one in which rape is encouraged, it seems that the crime is not regarded with the same caliber of horror and disgust as it is in the United States. This should not be surprising, considering the fact that rape was not officially outlawed in Liberia until 2006. In 2004, the United Nations estimated that 60 to 70 percent of Liberian women had been the victims of sexual violence.
Rape is one of the many elements of war used to inflict physical pain and psychological damage upon its victims and the victims’ friends and family. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to wonder if the young assailants were doing something that they had witnessed or heard of happening in their home country. It cannot be denied that they too are victims of war. As for the girl’s family, they have been conditioned by a culture that believes that honor is more important than family.
According to Azcentral.com, Tony Weedor, a Liberian refugee in Littleton, Colorado and co-founder of the CenterPoint International Foundation, which helps Liberians resettle in the U.S. said:
"[Liberian culture is] a shame-based culture, so the crime is not as important as protecting the family name and the name of the community … I just feel so sorry for this little girl. Some of these people will not care about the trauma she's going through - they're more concerned about the shame she brought on the family."
Although they have shunned her, they rape victim’s family has said nothing about the perpetrators. In this sense, it seems that the young assailants are receiving more support from the community than they victim. President Sirleaf has called for the judicial system counsel the boys and to also punish them for what they did. CNN reports that President Sirleaf told Phoenix authorities:
"They have to pay the penalty, but we also want to make sure that they are counseled ... that they will have an opportunity to change and become useful citizens, not only in the United States but when they return home."
While the Liberian President’s public outrage at the rape provides hope that change is finally coming to a country long plagued by violence, the incident is also a reminder of how war can continue to destroy lives long after the fighting is over.