New evidence has revealed the former Gambian President Yahya Jammeh’s perpetration of serial sex abuse and predation on young women during his 22 year-long dictatorship.
“And when I screamed that I was dying he said: “No, it’s fun”. And to people wondering why am I saying this so vividly and so loud it’s because it’s time that we hear this. It’s time that we all get uncomfortable, because comfort has been very disastrous.”Toufah (Fatou Network, 2019)
Evidence collected by Human Rights Watch and Trial International – thanks to women survivors who have spoken out about their experiences – demonstrates a calculated instrumentalisation of state institutions as well as the office of the Gambian Presidency in order to engineer a cycle of sexual violence and harassment exacted by Yahya Jammeh.
We must talk about sexual violence
Three women’s reports of the egregious abuse they allege to have endured make blood both boil and run cold. Fatoumatta, Bintu and Toufah have raised their voices and shared their testimonies to see justice realised and for Jammeh to face consequences for his actions. It is imperative that these voices are heard.
Sexual violence is difficult to talk about, especially with young people and children. It is vital, though, that through dialogue we break the taboo over and over again. We cannot and must not ignore the reality; that far too many people around the world are subjected to heinous sexual mistreatment and abuse. Remaining silent or eschewing hard conversations only permits said crimes to continue and pushes their survivors to face the aftermath alone.
A system corrupted to perpetuate abuse
Since the end of Jammeh’s rule in 2017, the wake of shifting political gears has gradually begun to loosen the culture of fear and predation unique to his office. It is thus only now that women are beginning to speak about what they have survived.
On top of those who have shared their stories, many more accounts of Jammeh’s predation have been corroborated by high officials in the Gambian Protocol Department, former members of the presidential guard and past Senate House employees. Institutions including the Ministry of Education, the Protocol Department (the girls who worked there are likened to ‘sexual slaves’) and security personnel all served to create a microsystem meant to facilitate Jammeh’s infliction of sexual abuse on young women (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
The evidence arising from Human Rights Watch and Trial International’s investigation demonstrates a clear pattern of Jammeh exploiting his immense power through the coercion of women with livelihood opportunities as part of orchestrated systematic sexual abuses.
Marion Volkmann-Brandau, Human Rights Watch researcher, states that Jammeh ‘appears to have been a serial, sophisticated sexual predator’ who ‘trapped, raped and sexually exploited women’ (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Marion spoke to the three women in person and recorded their testimonials.
|Fatou ‘Toufah’ Jallow
Fatou Jallow, who goes by the name of Toufah, has gone public with her story. In Toufah’s testimonial she described how she had won a State-House sponsored beauty pageant which provided scholarships, and subsequently attended meetings at the Ministry of Education related to her beauty queen charitable duties. Following this, Jammeh behaved steadily more informally and closely towards her, offering gifts, then a job in the Protocol Department, and eventually a proposition of marriage, which Toufah declined (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
“In his eyes all I saw was just a sense of anger at the fact that I would have the audacity somehow to say no to him – the President.” This refusal provoked a sickeningly violent retribution as he physically and verbally abused Toufah, before sexually violating and raping her. Toufah was 18 years old.
“I bleeded and I begged and I screamed, I said I’m sorry a thousand times, I was fighting back” … “and he did what he wanted to do, and I was screaming, and at some point I couldn’t hear my scream anymore. He told me, no-one is going to hear me anyways.” (Fatou Network, 2019; Human Rights Watch, 2019)
Fatoumatta Sandeng is a singer whose performances streamed on television brought her to the attention of Yahya Jammeh. He had her held for four days in a hotel room in his home village of Kanilai. Fatoumatta was by chance eventually able to leave only when Jammeh became caught up unexpectedly and never arrived at the hotel. Fatoumatta, who had been too terrified to defy withheld permission and leave the hotel room, used his absence to claim that her presence was required at a concert. Her release was on the sole condition that she promised to return to him. Fatoumatta was 21 years old at the time. (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
A woman going by the name of ‘Bintu’ who worked for over two years as a ‘protocol girl’ in the State House, had been promised by Jammeh a scholarship to study abroad, since she had been accepted into a university in the USA. Bintu recounted how the President took her and other girls on trips to Kanilai, where she saw women sequentially called into his private apartment for sex. Eventually she was the one summoned to Jammeh’s room. He instructed her to undress and applied spiritual waters on her body declaring this was to protect her. He then ordered her to return the following night, on which occasion he began to touch Bintu sexually. She resisted; a reaction which infuriated Jammeh to the extent that he had her not only thrown out of the residence, but cancelled her scholarship and also fired her from her job at the State House. (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
A road to justice
The Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRCC) is currently investigating the crimes committed during Jammeh’s rule.
Women like Fatoumatta, Bintu and Toufah who voice their experiences hope to be ‘agent[s] of change’, encourage others to come forward and bring their abuser under the auspices of justice to face redress in a court of law.
The campaign #Jammeh2Justice is attempting to do just this, and Fatoumatta acts as one of their spokespeople. Toufah wants a whole system change: it is reported that she aims to break the culture of silence around rape and sexual violence, and has repeatedly iterated that she has to talk, not just for herself but for other survivors of abuse so that Gambian women can begin to take back their stories, their narratives and their power.
“I am going to say this story again, and I am going to own this story. My justice most importantly includes a whole system change. […] And yes I am scared. I am scared. But I want the next person after me, to be a little less scared than me.” – Toufah (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
Humanium stands in solidarity
Humanium believes it a critical duty to both support survivors of sexual abuse and do everything possible to prevent further infliction of violence. We loudly and publicly declare our solidarity with Fatoumatta, Bintu and Toufah with the hope that the retelling of their experiences will help to amplify their narratives around the world.
If you know of a child or young person affected by abuse, or whose rights have been violated, do not hesitate to contact the Humanium helpline, where we do our utmost to give tailored guidance and advice.
Written by Josie Thum
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