It is a tragedy that would tug at the heartstrings of even the most callous. The eight-year-old Liberian girl was raped by her own community boys.
A furore followed when it was reported that her parents had abandoned her as she had brought the family notoriety. She has since been moved to childcare services. And now her parents have been arrested on charges of child abuse.
AdvertisementFour boys ages 9 to 14 were charged with sexually assaulting the 8-year old girl, in Phoenix, Arizona, in July last.
The girl was lured into a vacant storage shed by the suspects, who offered her chewing gum, police said at a news conference.
The girl was restrained while the boys — ages 9, 10, 13 and 14 — sexually assaulted her, police said.
All the suspects except for the 14-year-old live in the same apartment complex, according to Phoenix police Sgt. Andy Hill. The 14-year-old has been charged as an adult, Hill said.
The girl and the boys charged are all from families that have come to the United States from the West African nation of Liberia, police said.
It also transpired that the parents didn't want to have anything to do with the girl anymore as she had brought only shame on them and so she was removed to the Arizona Child Protective Service (CPS).
There seemed very little sympathy in the community for the wronged girl. Her own elder sister was more critical of the child than of the culprits. In fact she wanted them to be released early from detention.
"I came to her and said it's not good for you to be following guys because you are still little," the sister told KTVK. She also said that she wanted the suspects to be released from jail because "we are the same people."
"When she comes back I'm going to tell her don't ever do that again because all of us, we are the same family, we are from the same place. Now she is just bringing confusion among us. Now the other people, they don't want to see her," the sister said.
Originally the police were hesitant to act against the parents.
"They didn't abandon the child," Phoenix police sergeant Andy Hill told AFP news agency. "They committed no crime. They just didn't support the child, which led to CPS coming over there."
But there was an international outcry, even the Liberian President said she regretted the parents' actions.
But more damagingly for the parents, investigators found out that they had used sticks, wires and their fists to hit their young daughter.
Witnesses told CNN affiliate KTVK that the parents left their daughter wandering their apartment complex alone at night, begging for food.
Such stories don't seem to move the Liberian immigrants to make any statements against the parents.
Beverly Goll-Yekeson, herself a Nigerian victim of sexual violence and now working as an advocate for other Liberian women, says most families in Liberia condemn rape, but the crime is drastically underreported because of the stigma victims and relatives feel.
"There are a lot of social illnesses in the society; they are ashamed to come out," said Yekeson, president of the Liberia Crisis Center for Women and Children. "Rape is not something that people just come out and say."
Yekeson, who now lives and works in Maryland, said that refugees who have resettled in other countries, including the United States, often bring those attitudes with them.
The country was racked by a brutal civil war for most of 14 years. During that time, rape was used by fighters on all sides as a tool of war and a way to spread terror and demoralize enemies.
A United Nations report in 2004, the year after much of the fighting stopped, estimated that 60 to 70 percent of all women in the nation had been the victims of sexual violence.
A 2006 government report said that of 1,600 women surveyed, 92 percent reported some kind of sexual violence, including rape.
It's not known what, if any, exposure the boys or their parents had to the fighting in their homeland, where it was once commonplace for children as young as 7 or 8 to be forced into duty -- the boys handed rifles while the girls were made to perform chores or serve as sex slaves.
A United Nations report estimates that about 70 percent of all fighters in the conflict were younger than 18, and former fighters have told U.N. and other researchers about the rapes they say they routinely committed.
In 2005, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa's first elected female head of state.
Shortly afterward, the country enacted a law making rape a crime for the first time. Before that, only gang rape had been explicitly outlawed, and advocates say anarchy in the country meant any law added to the books during the civil war wouldn't have been enforced anyway.
Johnson-Sirleaf has made cracking down on rape and changing attitudes about it a top priority. She condemned the alleged attack in Phoenix and said defending rape is not a part of the nation's culture.
"Those parents should know that things have changed in Liberia," she told CNN last week. "No longer do we tolerate this. This is not a question of shame on the family. It's a question of the assault of a young child, and that cannot be tolerated."
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