Monrovia - Two-thirds of rape victims in Liberia last year were children, the government said on Tuesday, in an alarming statement revealing that ten under-14s had died as a result of their injuries.
Ministers said 65% of the 1 002 cases reported in 2013 concerned victims aged between three and 14, yet just 137 cases came to court with only 49 rapists convicted.
"As a result of rape 10 children from eight counties between the ages of three and 14 died during the year 2013. In some of the cases the perpetrators are still at large," the Ministry of Gender and Development, said in response to a request from AFP for statistics following a speech by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on sexual violence.
The ministry said the low conviction rate was due in part to families covering up rape by attackers related to their victim.
It also cited a shortage of protection officers to support victims, prosecutors not prioritising rape in their case loads and a lack of medical professionals specialising in dealing with victims in the immediate aftermath.
"Parents are compromising the cases because mostly the perpetrators are relatives or friends. We can say that the figure could be at least three times this if parents were not compromising," the ministry said.
Rape became endemic as a weapon of fear during Liberia's 1989-2003 civil wars and is still rampant, going unpunished more often than not.
Child soldiers served as a sexual playthings for Liberian rebels between battles during the savage conflict.
Sirleaf has overseen the enactment of harsh new rape laws, the creation of a dedicated rape court, and a women's police unit launched in 2009.
But convincing women to press charges remains a major battle and those who do often change their minds, fearing stigmatisation and preferring mediation by community elders or village chiefs.
Sirleaf said late on Monday in an annual televised state-of-the-nation address that child rape was one of Liberia's "biggest challenges" and "a growing concern".
"It is shameful that this continues to mar the image of our country," Sirleaf said.
She said current legislation was undermined by "families of victims who are easily compromised, by the lack of evidence, and by sympathetic judges" and called on communities to do more to bring rapists to justice.
"I chaired a meeting of women leaders... who are working on a programme that will call on religious, traditional and community leaders, parents, teachers, women and youth groups to become agents of change and commit to take action to prevent sexual violence, as this is everyone's responsibility," she said.
"We need your support also, to ensure that our children and our women are safe."
In a speech lasting two-and-a-half hours, she also promised action on the "alarming" rate of drug abuse and trafficking and called on parliament to pass legislation allowing those born to Liberian parents outside of the country to be granted automatic citizenship.