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Female Lawyers Get Patent to Prosecute Rape Cases

By Peter Kahler, Panafrican News Agency, 16 November 2000

Monrovia - Female lawyers in Liberia have added another accolade to an emerging string of achievements when the state granted them a patent to prosecute alleged rape cases alongside state prosecutors.

It wasn't easy. It took persuasion and persistence on our part, and a lot of understanding on the part of the justice ministry, says Counsellor Elizabeth Boryenneh, president of the Association of Female Lawyers in Liberia (AFELL).

The Liberian justice ministry recently granted AFELL a letter of patent empowering the group to work along with state lawyers in prosecuting rape cases involving females.

This represents a breakthrough for the female lawyers, while reflecting liberalisation by government, since under the law only the state can prosecute criminal cases.

But where state prosecutors are not readily available, such as in the regions, AFELL can present the letter of patent to a magistrate or judge to initiate prosecution in a case involving rape, Boryenneh told PANA.

She said AFELL sought the patent to help in the speedy trial of suspects, and primarily because rape cases are on the rise in the country.

The painful thing is that the crime (of rape) is now directed towards kids (minors) and not women anymore, she laments.

Boryenneh believes the law and penalties against rape are adequate to serve as deterrent, but the sad thing is that the victims are ashamed to come forward and press for prosecution.

She thinks the patent would strengthen the hand of AFELL's legal aid clinic, one of the organisation's achievements in six years of its existence.

The clinic offers free legal services to victims of sexual and gender-based violence, including rape, battery and child abuse, especially against the girl-child. It also caters for the indigent.

AFELL is also credited with advocating the institution of the first juvenile court in Liberia, and seeking an approved juvenile justice system in the country.

It has successfully campaigned for the strengthening of magisterial courts to assume juvenile jurisdiction in three counties (regions) in Liberia as forerunners to creating juvenile courts in the rural areas. Currently, the country's only juvenile court operates in Monrovia.

One of our biggest dreams is to set up offices in the counties, says Boryenneh, whose organisation has been engaged in civic education in women's and children's rights in rural areas with donor support.

There are some 25 female lawyers providing voluntary services on a rotational basis to help AFELL achieve its goals, Boryenneh said. Perhaps the landmark achievement for the female lawyers would be the attainment of equal inheritance and property rights for women in Liberia with the passage of a proposed bill on the devolution of estates by the national legislature (parliament).

Mid-last year, AFELL led a mammoth march of women to present a petition to the legislature seeking passage of the bill that will make all laws relating to widows and spouses of both statutory and customary marriages unified.

Under the law, both statutory and customary marriages are legal. Both the statutory and customary marriages make convenient provisions for widows and spouses. However, the customary marriage makes the wife a chattel and part of the property of her husband and therefore not entitled to inherit his property.

AFELL says the customary marriage practice is repugnant, discriminatory and contrary to the principles of unity and equality enshrined in the constitution of Liberia.

Boryenneh said the female lawyers are still working with the lawmakers on the passage of the proposed bill.