Liberian Ambassador: Shunning of Rape Victim "Not a Manifestation of Our Culture"

The reported shunning of an 8-year-old rape victim by her Liberian parents is "not a manifestation of our culture," the Liberian ambassador to the United States tells New Times.

Some media coverage of the July 16 rape quotes experts saying this kind of thing is the norm in Liberia, a country torn by vicious civil wars in which rape was used by all sides to terrorize the populace.

Ambassador M. Nathaniel Barnes(left), whom we reached in the Washington D.C. embassy by phone, denied that idea emphatically. But when he added that "the stigma of rape is a universal thing," we doubted he was being totally straight with us. It seemed he was making an unfair comparison. Rape victims may carry a stigma even in the United States, but it's not in the same ballpark as an 8-year-old being ostracized by her own parents.

Barnes expressed sincere concern for the welfare of the child, saying his West African nation is concerned about the girl and that the embassy is doing what it can to help.

"No 8-year-old should have to go through that," he says.

Embassy officials may soon travel to Phoenix to offer whatever support they can to the family, police and the refugee community. Edwin Sele, the embassy's deputy ambassador, told New Times earlier today he'd probably be the one to come.

Barnes says he hopes that the crime, tragic as it is, may serve to raise awareness to the needs of refugees like the four boys, aged 9-14, accused of committing the rape.

Liberia, a country founded by freed slaves and others from the United States, suffered more than a decade of civil war before the current political calm. Families who survived the crisis and are now resettling in the United States need more than food and shelter, Barnes says.

"Their social and psychological needs need to be addressed," he says.

Barnes and Seles say news of the crime has shocked Liberia's citizenry.

"Liberians everywhere feel some sense of outrage," Seles says. If the rape had occurred in Liberia instead of Phoenix, "there would be street justice. You'd have a mob."

Barnes says that after the last war ended, Liberia enacted some of the strictest anti-rape laws on the African continent.

"We also tried to create the appropriate social support network for victims of rape," Barnes says.

Yet a New York Times op-ed article from May says raping little girls may still be a "normal" part of Liberia's culture.

The incidence of rape has dropped since then but is still numbingly high. An International Rescue Committee survey in 2007 found that about 12 percent of girls aged 17 and under acknowledged having been sexually abused in some way in the previous 18 months.

Then there is the age of the victims. Of the 275 new sexual violence cases treated between January and April by Doctors Without Borders in Liberia, 28 percent involve children aged 4 or younger, and 33 percent involve children aged 5 through 12.

Liberia's president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (at right)

, who was quoted in the Times article, phoned in a statement to CNN today (as reported by KNXV-TV):

"This is not a question of shame on a family.. it's a question of assault on a young child and that can not be tolerated," said President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"I think that family is wrong," she added. "Clearly, [the boys] are doing something that's no longer acceptable in our society...We just want to make sure the parents take care of that child.. and to make sure she is put in a situation where she can be administered to, can be loved and cared."

The Channel 15 report says the victim's father wants the girl back, though he doesn't think the boy-suspects deserve any punishment.

UPDATE: Sirleaf goes on to tell CNN 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 Liberian Daily Observer's coverage of the CNN interview with President Sirleaf.

BBC News reports that the girl is receiving offers of support from all over the United States.

The Associated Press reports that the victim is still in CPS custody.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.