LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Even for community workers used to hearing horrific accounts of sexual violence in Liberia, the case of a two-year-old girl raped by a male acquaintance was devastating.
The toddler's mother needed to drop something at the market, so when the man came to visit, she asked him to mind her child for an hour.
"When she got back home, her daughter was screaming and screaming," a welfare officer told researchers. "He had claimed it was just a case of the child missing the mother, but after he left, the infant continued to scream. When she went to change the infant's diaper, she discovered that the baby had blood all over her legs and private parts."
Up to three-quarters of Liberian women suffered sexual violence during the country's 14-year civil war, in which self-appointed generals with names like "Bad Boy" and "Butt Naked" led armies of child soldiers high on marijuana and amphetamines to mutilate and rape as they fought.
Although the conflict ended in 2003, Liberia still has some of the highest incidences of sexual violence against women in the world, according to the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think-tank.
It cited a 2013 study that found 26 percent of women and girls had been raped outside of marriage and 74 percent had suffered marital rape in northern Nimba county alone.
Research ODI published on Monday blamed "hyper-masculinity" – aggressive, macho behaviour - sparked by years of war, for driving cycles of sexual violence in countries such as Liberia and East Timor, long after fighting has ended.
Mothers raped during conflict now face the risk of their daughters also becoming victims of sexual assaults, ODI said.
LEGACY OF WARTIME RAPE
Many Liberians witnessed atrocities as civilians or took part in them as combatants during a conflict that killed some 200,000 people out of a population of just over 3 million.
Experts say many men were stripped of their ability to protect or even feed their families in the war. Angry and powerless, they routinely turn on women and girls, reasserting their dominance through the use of force.
ODI Research Fellow Nicola Jones said the case of two-year-old girl assaulted in Liberia's Bomi county, a former rebel base that was one of the worst affected areas during the war, was not exceptional.
"This was not just a one-off case. There were a number of cases of very, very young children being abused, and I think it's only then that people are shocked," said Jones, one of the authors of "The fallout of rape as a weapon of war".
"(But) a 13-year-old? People sort of shrug. I think that's very telling about the toll this normalisation of violence is taking," Jones told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Women and adolescent girls in Liberia spoke repeatedly of the threat of violence from husbands and fathers, but also, from brothers. The violence they encountered was often random and public in nature, taking place quite openly in streets and bars near their homes, Jones said.
If the cycle is to be broken, donors attending this week's London summit on ending sexual violence, should take the unusual step of committing to long-term programmes - perhaps as long as 20 years - to address the problem, ODI said.
"Over a decade on, men no longer face the threat of being killed, but women and girls still face the risk of rape and sexual assault. For them, the war continues," said Janice Cooper of the Carter Centre Liberia, which works with survivors of sexual violence.
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