Aid worker fights sexual violence in Liberia with video cameras

Video team leader Albert D. Pyne, left, training volunteers in Boway Town, Liberia, last June.
Eve Lotter, American Refugee Committee
Video team leader Albert D. Pyne, left, training volunteers in Boway Town, Liberia, last June.

Rampant sexual violence was one major danger Liberians cited last year when they pleaded for permission to stay in the United States rather than return to Africa. Many of the thousands of Liberians who had made it to Minnesota came carrying scars from rape and sexual slavery during their homeland’s prolonged and bloody civil war.

President Bush granted an extension last fall to Liberians who were living in the United States under temporary protected status. They can stay at least until March 2009.

Meanwhile the urgent work of rebuilding Liberia continues. And Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) is pitching in by helping to treat the epidemic of sexual violence. Eve Lotter, a volunteer who had worked on the project in Liberia, was back in Minneapolis this month, ready to share her first-hand account.

Video cameras are the tools of a healing process Lotter and other ARC workers brought to Liberian communities. Local residents learned to use the cameras to document problems of domestic abuse, forced child marriage, sexual attacks and related problems. They were trained to film witnesses discretely so their identities could be hidden and to interview with sensitivity.

Forced to marry at 13
Most of the videos are kept private. But Lotter had permission from Liberians to show some footage, and ARC has made a training video public (It can be seen on ARC’s web site).

In one scene, a woman tells her story of being forced to marry an older man at age 13 then abandoned when she was pregnant at age 16 with his second child. In an agitated outburst, she pours forth the agony of wandering streets in despair, giving birth alone in the darkness and foraging in the bush for food.

Once finished, the documentaries are played back in community meetings. The playback serves as leverage not only for opening frank discussion of the problems but also for drawing out those who have hidden their stories and offering them counseling.

“Viewers regularly seek assistance for problems depicted in the films they have just seen,” said a report (PDF) on the project in the January 2007 issue of the journal Forced Migration Review. “Audience members identify with what they are shown.”

One dramatized story, for example, featured a doctor telling a mother her daughter was infertile as a result of a brutal rape.

An audience member burst into tears and said, “The same thing happened to my daughter during the war,” the journal reported.

Rape on the rise
Government officials also have attended the showings and engaged in the search for solutions, Lotter told 100 people who gathered recently at ARC’s office near Loring Park to hear her report.

The project is a long reach for a private refugee organization, Lotter said. Short-term relief such as handing out food, blankets and tents is the more conventional business of refugee aid work.

But the short-term needs — driven by perpetual violence — never seem to end in countries where the social order is utterly destroyed. Liberia’s civil war raged off and on for two decades. A generation of child soldiers was taught to rape and torture. And they got by with it because the justice system was as broken as the family order.

Even after United Nations peacekeepers restored order and Liberia seated a democratically elected government in 2006, rape was on the increase, the UN Secretary-General reported (PDF) last August.

Wynfred Russell, a college professor who lives in New Brighton, was among several Liberian Minnesotans who attended Lotter’s talk. Although he is a U.S. citizen, Russell has returned to Liberia several times, most recently last summer to do research on combating HIV/AIDS in West Africa.

Drama and street theater have been effective in drawing out the dark secrets left by Liberia’s war, Russell said. Video could be even more powerful, he said.

Even with a severe shortage of electricity, Liberians are major video fans. Villages form video clubs and hoard fuel to run generators so they can watch movies travelers have brought from afar.

It is “very empowering,” Russell said, for Liberians to see themselves — not foreigners — in videos, especially videos they have made themselves.

“This will be very effective,” Russell said.

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