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Liberia: Temporary Ban on Domestic Violence, Including Female Genital Mutilation

(Jan. 31, 2018) On January 19, 2018, as one of her last acts in office before handing power to current President George Weah, former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf issued an executive order on domestic violence.  (Press Release, Liberia Executive Mansion, President Sirleaf Signs Executive Order on Domestic Violence (Jan. 20, 2018).) Sirleaf issued the Order after attempts in the past few years to pass domestic violence legislation in the country’s legislature failed mainly over a disagreement on whether the law should include a ban on female genital mutilation. (Id.; Mae Azango, Outgoing President Sirleaf Abolishes Female Genital Mutilation, Signs Domestic Violence Bill, FRONT PAGE AFRICA (Jan. 20, 2018).)

Legal Status of the Order

While it is binding law, the Order will be in force for only one year. According to a 1974 ruling of the Liberia Supreme Court, presidential executive orders lapse after one year unless they are ratified by the legislature. (Ayad v. Dennis 23 LLR 165, 171 (1974).) The Court held that

[i]n the exercise of the executive power vested in him by the Constitution, the President may issue executive orders in the public interest, either to meet emergencies or to correct particular situations which cannot wait until the lengthy legislative process has run its course. However, he must refer each executive order to the Legislature as soon as possible for ratification. If the Legislature does not act up on the executive order after it has been referred to it, the order lapses a year after issuance. Until it lapses it has the effect of law, and all courts in Liberia are bound to take note of and give effect to it. (Id.)

Definition of Domestic Violence

The Order adopts a broad definition of what amounts to domestic violence. It is “in general any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering … , including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life between parties in an existing or former domestic relationship.” (Executive Order on Domestic Violence (E.O. No. 92) § 1 (Jan. 19, 2018), Liberia Executive Mansion website.)  One form of domestic violence is “emotional, verbal and psychological abuse,” which includes

a pattern or one time occurrence of degrading or humiliating conduct towards a person including any behavior that causes emotional damage and reduction of self esteem, or that harms and disturbs full development, or that aims at degrading of controlling a person’s actions, behavior, beliefs and decisions, by means of reduction of self esteem, threat, embarrassment, humiliation, manipulation, isolation, constant surveillance, constant pursuit, insult, intimidation, blackmail, ridiculing, exploitation and limitation of the rights to come and go, repeated exhibition of obsessive possessiveness or jealousy, which is such as to constitute a serious invasion of a person’s privacy, liberty, integrity, or security, or any other acts that cause damage to a person’s psychological health and self-determination, or any other series of acts which collectively cause a person to fear for his or her safety and life.” (Id.)

Also considered a form of domestic violence is economic abuse, including “unreasonable deprivation of economic or financial resources to which a spouse is entitled under the law.” (Id.)

Offenses and Penalties

Any act or omission that amounts to domestic violence is an offense under the Order. This includes deliberately preventing a person “from engaging in any legitimate profession[,] occupation, business or activity, depriving a person of the “use and enjoyment of conjugal property or property owned in common,” or coercing or attempting to coerce “a person to engage in any sexual activity which does not constitute rape by force, threat or intimidation.” (Id. § 2.) Another offense is what is known as “dowry related violence”—that is, ”harassment or any act of violence or harassment associated with [the] giving or receiving of [a] dowry at any time before, during or after [a] marriage.” (Id. §§ 1 & 2.) Significantly, the Order criminalizes performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on a person below the age of eighteen under any circumstance or on an adult person without first securing the person’s consent. (Id. § 2.) In addition, the Order criminalizes forcing a person into marriage, including early marriage, or subjecting a person into cultural torture, such as “sassy wood” (a form of trial by ordeal) or other forms of trial by ordeal. (Id. § 2.)  

The gravity of the offense and the resulting penalty varies depending on the circumstances. An offense of domestic violence is a first-degree misdemeanor and is, on conviction, punishable by a maximum of one year in prison and/or a fine. (Id. §§ 4 & 5.) In addition, the Court may also order the convict to pay restitution to the victim. (Id. § 5.) An offense of domestic violence constitutes a second-degree felony if, while committing the crime, the defendant inflicts bodily injury on the victim, uses or brandishes a deadly weapon, or is a recidivist. (Id. § 4.) The punishment for a second-degree felony is a prison term not exceeding five years. (Penal Law § 50.5, tit. 26, 4 Liberian Code of Laws Revised (1976), Liberian Legal Information Institute (LIBERLII) website.) Under certain circumstances, courts may impose alternative sentences. (Id.; Criminal Procedure Law, §§ 31.1(3) & 33.1, tit. 2, Liberian Code of Laws Revised (1972), LIBERLII website.)  The Court may order a person convicted on a domestic violence charge to attend a counseling or rehabilitation program. (Executive Order on Domestic Violence § 5.)  

Being under the influence of mind-altering substances or having the consent of the victim is not an acceptable defense against a domestic violence charge. (Id. § 6.)