Realizing Children’s Rights in Liberia
Liberia has a long way ahead to ensure the effective recognition and implementation of the rights of the child. The important role of traditional and cultural practices in Liberian society and the very young age of the population (41% under the age of 15 years, median age 19,1) (World Bank, 2019) creates significant challenges for children and children’s rights in Liberia.
Children face substantial shortcomings concerning the access to quality education, sanitary facilities and cultural practices such as child marriages, child labour, child abuse, accusation of witchcraft and ritual killings as well as forcible initiation ceremonies like female genital mutilation.
Children’s Rights Index: 4,73 / 10
Black level: Very serious situation
Population: 5,05 million
Pop. ages 0-14: 40,7 %
Life expectancy: 63,7 years
Under-5 mortality rate: 84.6 ‰
Liberia at glance
The Republic of Liberia is a Sub-Saharan country in West Africa with coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. Its capital is Monrovia. The country is neighboured by Guinea to its north, Ivory Coast to its east, and Sierra Leone to its west. The official language of the Republic is English. However, over 30 indigenous languages are spoken across the country.
The Liberian Civil Wars (1989-1996 and 1999-2003) were one of the most violent civil conflict in the African post-independence era. Widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law comprising the use of forced child soldiers, summary executions, sexual violence and torture defined these civil wars. Apart from those violations, the war caused a great economical destabilization leaving the state without resources and most of the remaining Liberians in poverty.
The 2003 Peace Agreement and the resignation of President Charles Taylor ended the Civil War in Liberia, which displaced about a million Liberians and killed approximately 250.000 people, including children. In 2005, after a two-year period of a transitional government, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as Liberian President and thus, the first female head of state of an African country.
In this post-war era, the President Sirleaf re-established an economy which is market-based and dependent on natural resources, external aid and foreign direct investment. In 2013, the outbreak of the Ebola virus hit Liberia and lasted for three years, killing around 5.000 Liberians and causing another economic decline. In 2018, George Weah took up Sirleaf´s position as the current president of Liberia.
Status of children’s rights 
Liberia has been a member state to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1993 and to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child since 2007. In 2004, Liberia signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children child prostitution and child pornography, but still fails to ratify these Protocols. (CRC Committee, 2012, para. 84). However, despite recommendations of the CRC Committee, it did not become party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on a communications procedure and therefore, does not provide for an individual complaint’s procedure under the CRC.
Two major steps towards protecting the rights of the child were taken in the Education Reform Act of 8 August 2011 and the Liberian Children’s Law of 4 February 2012, which domesticate the CRC into the domestic legal system. Despite these steps, Liberian domestic law still lacks protection relating to the minimum age for marriage, adoption, and juvenile justice.
Despite many positive developments towards the protection of the child such as the Anti-Corruption Law 2008, the Rape Law 2006, Anti-Trafficking Law 2005 and the development of an Independent National Commission on Human Rights Act 2005, the enforcement in practice faces multiple challenges, such as institutional weaknesses, corruption, lack of due diligence by the government and logistical and financial constraints (OHCHR, 2016)
Addressing the needs of children
Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs shall not be denied to any child, and Basic Education is free and compulsory until grade nine (Education Reform Act, 2011). Still, many children do not have access to basic education, because of school fees and indirect expenses, unofficial grade entrance examinations, distance to school and poverty and rural status (UNESCO, 2020).
As a result, the youth literacy rate in Liberia is around 55% and enrolment in education is particularly low (primary school: 45,5%; junior high school: 21,1%; senior high school: 26,3%; university: 6,8%) (Primson MS, 2018). A first step was taken in 2018, when the Liberian government established free tuition for undergraduate students (Human Rights Council, 2020). Also affecting the access to quality education is the underlying overage enrolment (Ministry of Education, 2016), which increases the drop-out rates (UNICEF, 2012) and the influence of social status (Primson MS, 2018).
The lack of teacher management and national school quality standards is another central issue affecting access to quality education. On the one hand, the government allocates only little resources for education. The Education Framework for Action 2030 recommends allocating at least around 5% of the GDP for education. However, the Liberian government only spent 3,83% of the GDP for education in 2017.
On the other hand, many of these resources are wasted by the employment of “ghost” teachers and unskilled teachers (about one-third of the teaching staff does not have any qualifications or only has fake qualifications). Also, alarming is, that in schools, corporal punishment for justifiable correction is still considered lawful under the Liberian Penal Code and the Children´s Law 2011 (Article 5(8) of the Penal Code 1976; Article 7 (7) Children´s Law 2011) (UNESCO, 2020).
Despite Liberia’s status as one of the wettest countries in the world, about 90% of the Liberian population does not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. This lack of access to basics of life for children leads to high rates of diarrheal disease, childhood malnutrition and infection diseases (UNICEF, n.d.). The lack of WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) facilities also increases the drop-out rate of children from educational facilities, especially for girls.
The limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for children and adolescents, including the lack of access to prevention measures and means, leads to a high rate of early pregnancy among adolescents. Because of the lack of health services, the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV remains a challenge (Human Rights Council, 2020). Approximately, 1% of the population is carrying the HIV/AIDS virus, around 4.000 children under 14 amongst them.
Due to the lack of effective access to and the general prohibition of abortion, the prevalence of unsafe clandestine abortions often leads to maternal mortality. This leaves new-borns without access to the necessary maternal care. About 13.500 children under the age of 5 die every year to easily preventable diseases such as neonatal causes, malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea and measles (UNICEF, 2019).
Another alarming fact is the critical shortage of health practitioners in Liberia. With approximately 12 health workers per 10.000 population, Liberia has only about half of the 23 workers recommended by the WHO to provide for the minimum of essential maternal and child health services for the entire population (Front Public Health, 2019). This shortage causes a substantive inequality in the effective access to health services for children from economically disadvantaged families.
Liberia has one of the lowest birth registration rates in the whole of West Africa. Only 25 percent of children under the age of 5 are registered at birth (UNICEF Liberia, 2020). Birth registration is fundamental to provide children with legal identity and the access to education, health care and other basic services.
Despite efforts to increase birth registration through a system in all public health facilities and service centres across the country to ensure the issuance of delayed birth certificate free for age 0 to 5 in health centres, 0- to 12-year-olds at the Bureau of Vital Statistics for Birth Registration and Death Certificate, and the service centres across the country, the rate of birth registration remains low in Liberia, particularly in rural areas.
With the support of the French government, the number of birth registration centres in the country increased from 15 in 2018 to 32 in mid-2020. This system of birth registration centres covers up to 98 percent of Liberia (UNICEF Liberia, 2020). Around 5,000 children under the age of 5 will get registered and receive their birth certificates through the support of the Government of France.
Another prevailing issue is the nationality legislation, namely the Aliens and Nationality Law of 1973, which bases on a hybrid of citizenship by jus soli (that is, citizenship by birth right) and jus sanguinis (that is, citizenship by ancestry). Therefore, Chapter 20 of the Aliens and Nationality Law and Article 27 of the Liberia’s Constitution restrict citizenship by birth to a child being of an indigenous Liberian race or of descent of an indigenous Liberian race (§ 20.1 a. of the Aliens and Nationality Law of 1973).
This nationality legislation prevents women from transmitting Liberian nationality to their children if they are born to a Liberian woman married to non-Liberian men outside the country (§ 20.1 b) Aliens and Nationality Law of 1973). This violates not only the women’s rights (Article 9 (2) CEDAW), the rights of the child (Article 7 CRC) and civil and political rights (Article 24 (1) ICCPR), but also the Liberian Constitution (Article 28 Constitution of the Republic of Liberia).
Risk factors – Country-specific challenges
About 64% of the population are living below the poverty line and the underdeveloped economy of Liberia is threating the livelihood of many individuals. The lack of financial means is underlying in many shortcomings in Liberia, such as the lack of access to quality health services and access to adequate sanitation, and causes a lack of access to quality education as many children are forced to work (International Monetary Fund, 2021). Childhood poverty causes damage in the most vital period of the mental, physical, and social development. Lack of food, health care, education, and safety as well as different forms of domestic violence can have irreparable consequences. These consequences lead to an intergenerational transfer of poverty, delinquency, and can contribute to different forms of addictions (International Monetary Fund, 2021).
Despite the inclusion of the principle of non-discrimination into the Liberian Constitution, children in Liberia face several issues relating to discrimination. Children with disabilities are often stigmatized, abandoned, neglected, and exposed to risks including death and/or inhuman and degrading treatment (United States Department of State, 2018).
A widespread stigmatization and de facto discrimination against children living with HIV/AIDS and psychosocial disabilities, against the Ebola virus disease survivors and children with albinism prevails to exist in Liberia (Human Rights Committee, 2018). Apart from the lack of a comprehensive definition of discrimination against women, the Alien and Nationality Law and the Constitution include discriminatory provisions based on gender and ethnic origin regarding the enjoyment of the right to nationality and naturalization (Human Rights Council, 2020).
Another concerning issue is the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct between consenting adults and attempts to increase penalties and prohibit same-sex marriage. The social and legislative discrimination that LGBTI individuals, including children, face is a high level of stigmatisation, de facto discrimination in the enjoyment of several rights and the prevailing violence inflicted by state or non-state actors based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which is exacerbated by the lack of effective investigations (Human Rights Council, 2020). All these forms of discrimination result in a lack of access to education, as well as the exclusion of those children from society and contribute to the intergenerational transfer of poverty.
Child labour deprives children of education and exposes them to a high risk of harm to their health. This deprivation of education reinforces the intergenerational cycle of poverty (Lawyers without borders, 2018). Data shows that about 15% of Liberian children were exposed to child labour (UNCIEF, 2019). Children are forced to work as street vendors, beggars or domestic servants and in the worst forms of child labour such as rubber manufacturing and mining. Despite a recommendation by the Human Rights Committee in 2018 and efforts to combat the worst forms of child labour in the Penal Code and the Liberian Children’s Law, the government fails to implement a national action plan and to enforce the provisions on forced labour in the Penal Code and in the Children’s Law.
Rape is the second most commonly reported serious crime in Liberia and is in part a legacy of its 14-year civil conflict (OHCHR, 2016). During the war, between 61.4 and 77.4% of women and girls in Liberia were raped (OHCHR, 2016). Most perpetrators are well-known to the victims, such as community members, relatives or neighbours. About 80% of rape victims are under the age of 18, including girls under the age of 5 (OHCHR, 2020). Despite implementing the Rape Law 2005 that amends the Penal code of 1976 and the Special Court, Court E, the prosecution and conviction of rape remains low (approx. 2%).
Barriers to achieving justice are institutional weaknesses, corruption, lack of due diligence by the government, logistical and financial constraints, influence by traditional actors, cultural and patriarchal attitudes as well as gender stereotyping.
Liberia is among the 20 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage globally. The influence of gender inequality on forced and child marriage shows that, compared to the 36% of girls that are married before the age of 18 (9% under the age of 15), only 5% of boys are married before the same age (UNICEF, 2019). Prevailing reasons for child marriage in Liberia are poverty, level of education, harmful traditional practices and the high level of gender inequality (Girls not brides, 2020).
The domestic legislation, Domestic Relations Law 1973, determines the legal age of marriage for girls to be 18 years and 21 years for boys. In 2012, the Liberian Children Law removed the exceptions to allow a marriage above the age of 16 (under the age of 18) with parental consent. This removal is weakened by the lack of repeal of Section 2.2 of the Domestic Relations Law of Liberia that allows for such an arrangement. Despite these efforts to abolish child marriage, the lack of consistency of customary and statutory laws, massive awareness campaigns and engagement with local and traditional leaders has resulted in the prevalence of the continuous practice of early and forced marriage (UNICEF, 2019).
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, is any procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external genitalia and/or injury to the female genital organs, whether for cultural or any other nontherapeutic reasons (WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA, 1997). Secret tribal societies, such as the Sande, and their traditional and community leaders continue to carry out this harmful cultural practice on a large scale in their initiation rites. In Liberia, about 40% of women between the age of 16-45 have undergone FGM (Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, 2020).
Despite banning this cultural practice and tradition for girls under the 18 years of age or for non-consenting women by a presidential executive order in 2018, the Liberian Government has not yet implemented the legislation prohibiting FGM (Human Rights Council, 2020). A stand-alone anti-FGM bill has been drafted and submitted for consideration, but still lacks its implementation into national law (Human Rights Council, 2020). On the contrary, provisions sanctioning FGM have been removed from the Domestic Violence Act, leaving girls and women at serious risk.
Forcible initiation into the society
Most of the forcible initiation rituals are based on patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes in society and in the family. The secret tribal societies perpetuate those as initiation into adulthood.
A similar initiation ritual exists for boy and adolescent males. In most cases, forcible initiations start with the abduction of the boy or adolescent male. The initiations are used to introduce non-members to traditional cultural values of those societies and to the rigors and obligations of adulthood. The secret societies, such as the Poro society, are also often forcibly initiating non-members who are not adhering to the societies’ rules, such as trespassing on sacred ground or disturbing society activities (OHCHR, 2015). Those practices have to be kept secret, and violations of this society code often result in serious punishments such as killings (OHCHR, 2015).
Despite the legal prosecution of abduction and forcible initiation as a criminal offence under Liberian Law and the violation of multiple human rights, these initiation ceremonies are still widespread and the government is unable or unwilling to address this issue adequately (OHCHR, 2015) The aforementioned human rights violations include the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the right to freedom of movement, the right not to be illegally or arbitrarily detained, and the right not to be subjected to discrimination on account of religion or ethnic affiliation, as well as the right to be free of ill-treatment as the initiations often inflict severe pain and suffering.
Children accused of witchcraft are forced to confess their wrongdoing or be examined by a witch doctor using methods that by itself qualify as ill-treatment, such as a fishhook in the victim’s throat and a hot machete on their skin. Those children that confess or are identified as using witchcraft are subjected to “cleansing” rituals and punished. Punishments include deprivation of education, shaving in public and separation from their families to live with a witch doctor or “prophet”. Children accused of witchcraft are at risk of physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, living on the street and experiencing both psychological and physical trauma (OHCHR, 2015).
In September 2011, the Child Justice Section in Liberia’s Ministry of Justice took a step forward in establishing a Juvenile Justice System. Despite the statutory mandate for the creation of a juvenile court in each county, the only juvenile court can be found in the country of Montserrado. In the other 15 counties, magistrate courts function as juvenile courts.
Article 9 of Liberia’s Children’s Law defines juvenile justice as a system combatting delinquency, promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s constructive role in society (Children’s Law, 2012). The provision is weakened by its own exceptions. For example, Article 9 Section 3.3 and 3.4 allow for imprisonment and the use of physical violence based on a subjective interpretation of the terms “no other way to correct the child” and “not unreasonable” by the mostly untrained authorities (lack of juvenile courts).
The cultural perception of a lack of accountability from juveniles for certain crimes is reinforced by a mistaken interpretation of the law that juveniles cannot be prosecuted for crimes such as rape. (United Nations Mission Liberia, 2016). “Juveniles who perpetrated sexual violence crimes were released by the police with a verbal reprimand, due to a combination of misunderstanding of the criminal procedure code by law enforcement and cultural beliefs.” (United Nations Mission Liberia, 2016).
Despite commitments to establish an age-appropriate juvenile justice system, including juvenile detention centres, the detention facilities and the juvenile detention centres, if existing, are in unacceptable conditions, overcrowded, and providing inadequate food and inadequate medical care (United States Department of State, 2018). Apart from that, in counties with smaller detention facilities, juveniles are often held detained in separate cells in the same cellblock with adults.
Written by Alexander Weihrauch
Last updated on 8 March 2021
Lawyers without borders (January 2018), Liberia Child Labor Manual and Rapod Reference Cards, Country level engagement and assistance to reduce child labor II (Clear II) Project, retrieved from Lawyers without borders.
CRC Committee (13 December 2012), CRC/C/LBR/CO/2-4, Concluding observations on the combined second to fourth periodic reports of Liberia, adopted by the Committee at its sixty-first session (17 September-5 October 2012).
UNICEF (2012), Liberia Country Study: Global Initiative on out of school children. Monrovia: UNICEF.
Human Rights Committee (27 August 2018), Concluding Observations on the initial report of Liberia, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, CCPR/C/LBR/CO/1.
UNICEF Liberia (14 December 2020), PRESS RELEASE -The Government of France Supports Birth Registration in Liberia, Monrovia.
OHCHR (December 2015), An Assessment of Human Rights Issues Emanating from Harmful Traditional Practices in Liberia, United Nations Mission in Liberia.
Human Rights Council (25 February 2020), Summary of Stakeholders’ submissions on Liberia, A/HRC/WG.6/36/LBR/3.
Human Rights Council (24 August 2020), National report submitted in accordance with paragraph 5 of the annex to Human Rights Council resolution 16/21, A/HRC/WG.6/36/LBR/1.
Human Rights Council (6 March 2020), Compilation on Liberia – Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, A/HRC/WG.6/36/LBR/2.
United States Department of State (2018), Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
 This article by no means purports to give a full or representative account of children’s rights in Liberia; indeed, one of many challenges is the scant updated information on the Liberian children, much of which is unreliable, not representative, outdated or simply non-existent.