Esther Glain was hanging out at a soccer match outside Monrovia, Liberia's capital city, when the car came barreling toward her group of friends.
With the SUV so close that she barely had room to move, Glain shouted at the driver, confronting him about what he had done.
But behind the wheel, the 33-year-old said, was a high-ranking presidential security official. Insults were exchanged. He lashed out, she said, beating her with his hand and feet.
“I was very afraid and surprised,” Glain told Refinery29. “[I was] just asking a simple question, and the next thing [I was] getting slapped in the face, kicked.”
Soon, Glain was on the ground, blood gushing from a deep gash on her head. Someone from the car had hit her with a glass bottle.
“Something must be done,” read one Facebook post that generated hundreds of comments and shares.
Within about 24 hours of that post, the administration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced that the alleged assailant, Deputy Director for Operations of the Executive Protection Service Darlington George, had been dismissed from his post.
A release announcing the firing and exploration of charges against George said the government “will not condone such acts of sheer indiscipline and total lack of morals on the part of any member of State security institutions.” He was arrested by police the following day, Glain said.
George, who could not be reached for comment by Refinery29 as of Wednesday, told the Associated Press that he could not comment “until I am given the green light to do so.” The communications director for the country’s Ministry of State for Presidential Affairs declined to comment further on the incident.
Although advocates celebrated the government’s swift response, they pointed out that Glain is far from alone. Her traumatic experience, they said, is just one example of a broader issue of violence against women and abuse of power by law-enforcement officials in the West African nation.
Georgia Genoway, a close friend of Glain’s who led the call for justice on social media, said a culture of harassment leaves many Liberian women afraid to go out alone. Verbal and physical assaults go unreported, she said, because people believe no punishment will come of the allegations.
“Men who are in Liberia, they tend to be aggressive to you. Especially if you are at the beach or you are in the bar, if you are in the club,” Genoway said. “It’s not safe to be out alone.”
Pamela Scully, a professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and African studies at Emory University, said that in Liberia, “like many other post-conflict societies, violence against women remains an enduring issue.”
The outcry over this incident, Scully said, may also reflect growing fears that the country’s progress in recovering from years of civil conflict and a corrupt and abusive system of government is beginning to slip.
But she said the reaction to the allegations — both on social media and by the Sirleaf administration — speaks volumes about the ability to use social media to hold authorities and governments accountable. She compared the case to the ongoing online push to call attention to police killings of unarmed Black men in the United States.
...social media’s making sure people don’t get away with it. Or they don’t get away with it the way that they used to.
Genoway, a Liberian activist who is now pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service, is continuing to use social media to campaign for justice on behalf of her friend, amid concerns that George may escape prosecution.
The success of her initial effort, which attracted the attention of journalists including Ashoka Mukpo, the cameraman who made international headlines when he survived Ebola last year, has inspired Genoway to create an online group dedicated to publicizing and prosecuting assaults. She now hopes her friend’s experience will mark a turning point in the treatment of crimes against women in Liberia.
Interesting case of social media-fueled accountability happening in Liberia right now. (1)— ashoka (@unkyoka) September 15, 2015
Chief of President's bodyguard detail assaulted a woman over a traffic incident. He and his men hit her in the face with a bottle. (2)— ashoka (@unkyoka) September 15, 2015
A picture of her bloodied face went viral on Liberian facebook walls and discussion groups. Hit the local media, she was interviewed. (3)— ashoka (@unkyoka) September 15, 2015
The outrage online translated into his being fired. It's a big job, no small thing. Wouldn't have happened without social media. (4)— ashoka (@unkyoka) September 15, 2015
For Glain, the trauma has not yet subsided. She lost a lot of blood in the alleged assault and has been told that the cut from the bottle will leave a scar on her face. She is now recovering in an undisclosed location far from her home, amid fears of backlash against her entire family.
“For now, I’m really, really afraid,” she said. “I’m living in fear right now.”