Liberia Leans In

In a country where rape has been used as a weapon of war, reformers are making special efforts to turn women into cops.


This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study (2005–2011) produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

This article is an abridged version of a longer historical case study (2005–2011) produced by Innovations for Successful Societies, a research program at Princeton University.

After the 14-year civil war ended in 2003, the Liberian government began to overhaul its security sector. Reforms focused on the Liberia National Police (LNP), which had both a reputation to restore and an extremely high incidence of sexual violence to address. From 2005 to 2011 — supported by Africa’s first female president as well the largest peacekeeping mission in United Nations history — the LNP prioritized gender-sensitive reform. In particular, the LNP strived to recruit more women and to be more responsive to sexual violence.

Building Liberians’ trust in the police service would be difficult. During the civil war, some police officers had used violence, including rape, against political opponents and civilians. As John Nielsen, deputy police commissioner for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), recounted in 2011, the "LNP had a unit called the ‘black berets,’ who were accused of being rapists and murderers. And those men are still around." Furthermore, Liberia’s police were notorious for poor handling of cases of sexual and gender-based violence (such as domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual assault). Deddeh Kwekwe, head of the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Unit at Liberia’s Ministry of Gender and Development, explained that, before the war, "if someone came to report domestic violence, the police would say, ‘It’s your fault you were beaten.’ If a woman reported rape, the police would suggest she had caused it. Women would be traumatized." This ethos had direct repercussions on the reporting of sexual violence.

In addition, rape survivors were reluctant to report the crime because of the associated stigma and taboo. Victims — the majority of whom were children — often knew the perpetrators as neighbors or family members, and many cases were settled privately. The shortage of women in the security sector also exacerbated underreporting. In 2005, only 2 percent of Liberia’s police officers were women, yet victims of gender-based crimes often preferred to report to female officers.

To remedy this imbalance — and to respond to the U.N. Security Council resolution for women, peace, and security — UNMIL, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Liberia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy team set a 20 percent target for female officers in the police by 2014. But problems began at the outset due to the limited number of eligible female candidates. The LNP required applicants to be high school graduates. Decades of war, weak infrastructure, and — in some parts of the country — a culture that did not encourage girls’ education meant that relatively few women held high school diplomas. According to Liberia’s Demographic Health Survey of 2007, 5 percent of Liberian women had completed secondary school or higher.

Of the women who did have the requisite degree, many were reluctant to apply. (Some of their hesitations were equally shared by men.) According to Roland Foley, LNP chief of personnel, "Women don’t regard LNP as a profession because of the low salary, the low incentives, and their concepts and perceptions of the police." Nielsen of UNMIL observed that opportunities for advancement were limited; the highest-level LNP positions were political appointments. Moreover, police officers might be deployed to Liberia’s rural counties, where there were few roads, schools, hospitals, and other amenities. Another fundamental challenge in recruiting women was that Liberia’s security institutions were traditionally male-dominated. Female police recruits were often considered for office positions, but not for work in fast-action or tactical operations groups.

Despite such challenges, by late 2005 the reform movement had gained momentum. Donor countries were committed to investing in gender-mainstreaming efforts, and LNP officers worked with and learned from UNMIL police officers. Perhaps most importantly, a committed female president provided powerful political will.

* * *

Three female LNP officers in particular played important roles in determining the focus and strategy of LNP’s gender-sensitive reforms. The first was Beatrice Munah Sieh, appointed by President Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 to be inspector general, LNP’s highest position. Munah Sieh had served in the police service for 18 years before fleeing the war in 1996. She then served as a special education teacher in New Jersey, before returning to Liberia for the appointment. (Munah Sieh stepped down from her position in 2009. As of the publication of this article, she was under investigation for irregularities in the procurement of uniforms.) The second was Asatu Bah-Kenneth, a police officer since 1985 who served as the founding chief of LNP’s Women and Children Protection Section in 2005 and was later appointed as LNP’s deputy inspector general in 2007. A third reformer was Vera Manly, who began as a police cadet in 1993, entered LNP’s first class of post-war trainees in 2005, graduated as the "most motivated recruit," and led LNP’s Women and Children Protection Section beginning in 2010.

To launch the reform, LNP supported study trips, recruitment campaigns, and training. Napoleon Abdulai, a specialist in security sector reform with the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), noted that only when Liberian officials traveled to nearby countries did they realize the extent to which gender-related initiatives were embedded into other police services. Ghanaian police provided supplementary education and scholarships to women, who were sometimes excluded from such opportunities during their youth. Sierra Leone had enhanced its police responsiveness through "Family Support Units" to address domestic violence and sexual abuse, an initiative of Kadi Fakondo, a high-ranking female police officer.

To attract more women to the police, LNP and UNMIL officers launched a countrywide recruiting drive targeting women through events at high schools, universities, and rural gathering places. Amelia Itoka, head of the LNP’s gender unit, recalled standing outside the Ministry of Education with a megaphone, encouraging Liberians, especially women, to apply to the LNP. The personnel team emphasized incentives for young women to join, such as training, uniforms, and regular salaries. Top LNP women served as role models in the recruitment effort, sharing their experiences with interested university students, and assuring them that university graduates had increased opportunities for advancement.

Other role models included an all-female Indian police unit sent to serve as part of UNMIL. The officers visited villages and spoke in schools and colleges about their experiences. Rakhi Sahi, commander of the unit from India, said: "[My] biggest accomplishment is building up the confidence of the Liberian women. … Women as well as men in Liberia look up to us. … For them, it is a very unique feature that
women can take up arms and stand on the roadside and protect them." 

Despite these initiatives, by 2007, LNP’s initial recruitment efforts were falling short. Although two years of concentrated recruiting more than doubled the makeup of women in the police force to 5 percent, the 20 percent goal was proving elusive. Education was still a problem. In response, police leaders and their international partners designed an Education Support Program, held in Monrovia, the capital. The goal was to enable women between the ages of 18 and 35 who had completed at least ninth grade to earn the equivalent of a high school degree and qualify for police training.

The first step of the fast-track education program was to determine applicants’ ability to learn the required material via an aptitude test. Successful police aspirants went on to intense schooling in 11 subjects. The program provided trainees with lunches and stipends for transportation, as well as housing stipends for those from outside Monrovia. After three months, the institute conducted final exams. Successful candidates then followed standard procedures to enter basic police training at the academy.

The Education Support Program dramatically changed the proportion of female police recruits. According to an UNMIL report, the LNP’s 29 training classes held before the initiation of the Education Support Program each included approximately four women out of 150. But the three cohorts of the education program between 2007 and 2008 resulted in more than 100 female recruits per class, increasing women’s enrollment from 5 percent to 12 percent and — according to UNMIL — creating a "multiplier effect" going forward.

By July 2011, 17 percent of LNP’s officers (723 out of 4,198) were female. (By 2013, the percentage had not changed, with 767 women out of 4,417 officers.) However, some gaps remained. First, women were less represented in LNP’s higher-level positions and in specialized or elite forces. Second, there were few female police officers deployed outside of Monrovia. Third, the LNP did not have a comprehensive directory of its officers to track retention, training, and promotion, making it impossible to determine whether women officers were being promoted at rates comparable to those of male officers.

The Educational Support Program received mixed reviews. Champions believed the program provided an accelerated professional gateway for women and acknowledged that the increased rates of women in the LNP could not have been possible without the program. However, many expressed reservations. Some believed the program was created in a desperate effort to reach the target of 20 percent women in the police service, and, as a result, prioritized quantity over quality. Nielsen of UNMIL said that the program created a caste system: "The problem is that it only gives you a piece of paper that says you’re literate; it doesn’t mean you can read it. … We brought these women into an organization where there were pre-existing women who did have high school or college degrees, [who then] looked down on those who didn’t. How can they compete?" Others, such as Abla Gadegbeku Williams, deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization and a former police officer, noted that some men resented the fast-track opportunity because they, too, missed out on education during the war.


In parallel with its recruitment efforts, in 2005 the LNP created a special unit — the Women and Children Protection Section (WCPS) — to respond to reports of domestic violence, sexual assault, and crimes against children. UNMIL selected trainees for the new unit from both male and female graduates of basic police training. Officers that created Sierra Leone’s Family Support Units were brought in to train Liberia’s first WCPS officers. Training included instruction in creating case reports for crimes of domestic violence, investigating reports, collecting evidence, and maintaining confidentiality. Trainers emphasized the importance of building the community’s confidence by protecting victims, even if perpetrators or acquaintances with power tried to derail cases.

Asatu Bah-Kenneth, the founding chief of WCPS, helped deploy WCPS officers across the country, building new units with financial support from the United Nations. As the head of a new high-profile operation, Bah-Kenneth had to make sure Liberians knew about WCPS. Her team designed awareness campaigns, including leaflets, posters, school visits, community meetings, billboards and radio shows, and engaged with journalists to publicize WCPS services.

By 2011, many Liberians and their international partners considered the Women and Children Protection Section a success, with 217 specially trained officers deployed in 52 special WCPS units around the country. William Mulbah, deputy director of training at the National Police Academy, said that in the past, people would not report sexual assault or domestic violence to the police. Now, however, "if there is a problem, people go to the Women and Children Protection Section first."

But the section faced obstacles. WCPS chief Vera Manly reported that the unit had limited resources, particularly a lack of vehicles. Some Liberians had to walk hours to reach the nearest section office, and in turn officers had to walk hours to reach a crime scene. Police officers did not always coordinate well with prosecutors, and officers did not always have the technical capacity to follow proper procedures. Sometimes their investigations did not collect enough evidence to support their cases in court.

As Liberians realized that they could report rape to the police, the judiciary’s caseload grew, resulting in a significant case backlog. To address this issue, leaders at Liberia’s Ministry of Justice established Special Court E, a fast-track court created to deal specifically with cases of sexual assault. The ministry also created a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) Crimes Unit to counsel victims, improve police officers’ ability to run investigations, coordinate the efforts of police officers and prosecutors, and train prosecutors to tackle cases involving sexual violence.

Although the joint initiatives of the Special Court and the SGBV Crimes Unit were promising, reformers expressed disappointment that most cases were not tried and convicted. From its founding in February 2009 through July 2011, the SGBV Crimes Unit was able to move only 16 of approximately 200 cases through Special Court E. Meanwhile, hundreds of people accused of rape sat in prison waiting for trial.

The backlog stemmed from structural and administrative issues within the criminal justice system. Why the backlog? Anna Stone, a lawyer working for the Norwegian Refugee Council’s gender-based violence project, explained that the major bottleneck in Special Court E arose from the timing and nature of cases: Judges and juries could hear only one case at a time, and some cases could last as long as a year. Cases were drawn out because criminal complaints were often submitted and heard long after evidence had been destroyed. In rare cases when complaints were reported immediately, there was no forensic laboratory to analyze evidence. Additionally, "finding witnesses is almost impossible," Felicia Coleman, a Liberian lawyer, explained. The broader problem, she said, was that one single court or crimes unit was unable to solve these sorts of obstacles: "The entire criminal justice system needs to be reformed."

Ultimately, judicial roadblocks threatened the LNP’s efforts to prosecute sexual and gender-based violence. Vildana Sedo, a U.N. police officer working alongside Liberian officers in the Women and Children Protection Section, noted: "LNP
has made huge progress. The problem is that the criminal judicial system is unable to support what LNP achieves." Observers noted the need for comprehensive justice sector reform, including a better integration between statutory law and the traditional or customary judicial system. An anonymous Liberian interviewed by researchers from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs lamented: "Why can’t victims of rape get justice? It’s not because they’re women; not because they’re victims of rape; it’s because nobody gets justice here!"


Although Liberia has a long way to go, reformers at the LNP leveraged a unique window of opportunity for gender-sensitive reform, increasing the percentage of female police offers and training officers to respond better to sexual and gender-based violence.

In 2011, Bah-Kenneth reflected on her experience leading the Women and Children Protection Section: "As first head of the section, I planted a seed that grew up. And I’m proud of it today. And I can say that I was able to expose a lot of perpetrators during my time. … I’m proud to say that I gave birth to that section, and now it’s moving."

Laura Bacon, associate director of Princeton University's Innovations for Successful Societies (ISS), was a White House Fellow during the Obama administration and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger (2002-2005). Rushda Majeed is a Senior Research Specialist at ISS.

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