PHOENIX – Lured by promises of chewing gum then allegedly raped in a shed by four boys barely older than her, an 8-year-old Liberian girl is now in foster care and living with strangers after being shunned by her family.
The alleged sexual assault in Phoenix and reaction by her family have sparked an international outcry, reaching all the way to the president of Liberia, the home country of the girl's family and the four young suspects.
"I think that family is wrong. They should help that child who has been traumatized and they should make sure that they work with the U.S. law authorities to see what can be done about the other young boys who have committed this offense," Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told CNN. "Not only should they abide by the law, but they too need serious counseling because clearly they are doing something, something that is no longer acceptable in our society here."
Sirleaf has tried to combat rape in recent years, seeking to dispel stigmas by publicly acknowledging that she was herself the victim of attempted rape during the country's civil war.
But experts who study the developing world say the parents' reaction highlights the struggles of many women around the globe.
"They're always being blamed for everything," said Monica Westin, founder of World of Hope International, which promotes human rights. "It's always the girl's fault. There's no gender equality."
Westin said West African refugees often keep in touch with friends and relatives back home and try to maintain their culture. Many have grown up uneducated and find it hard to change their customs.
"Sometimes it's like they never left the village," she said. "They have this extended family, they stick together."
A 14-year-old boy was charged Wednesday as an adult with two counts of sexual assault and kidnapping, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office said. He appeared in court Thursday and was being held without bond.
A public defender assigned to represent him did not immediately respond to a message left Friday afternoon.
The other boys — ages 9, 10, and 13 — were charged as juveniles with sexual assault. The 10- and 13-year-old boys also were charged with kidnapping, the office said Thursday.
Police say the girl's father told a police officer and a Child Protective Services worker that he doesn't want her anymore.
But Slueue Goe, who is from Liberia and identified himself as the uncle of the 9- and 10-year-old suspects, said he knows the girl's parents and doesn't believe allegations that they blamed or shunned their daughter.
He denied that his nephews are capable of sexual assault, and said his country does not have a rape problem.
"We are from West Africa. We are well-behaved people. We are trained people. It is our culture to respect," Goe said.
The children come from a country torn by a civil war that brought decades of violence and exposed generations of children to brutality before its end in 2003.
"What you're seeing here is the very long legacy and reach of the violence that took over Liberia for 70 years," said Pamela Scully, a professor of women's studies and African studies at Emory University in Atlanta. "When you're dealing with children this young, they're mimicking actions they've seen, they've heard about, they've grown up with."
President Sirleaf said she would ask Liberian Ambassador Milton Barnes to work with the family and Phoenix authorities to ensure the girl's protection.
The Liberian Embassy in Washington did not return calls from The Associated Press.
Most residents of the sprawling complex where the rape allegedly occurred were tightlipped when asked about the incident.
Ben Haines, who lives across the street from the building, said he was disturbed that the 8-year-old girl's parents supposedly blamed the assault on her.
"That just sounds so wrong. She's barely old enough to know about that," Haines said.