BY: Mary Mamdegen Fye
It is not uncommon to blame victims of sexual violence for their suffering. The Gambia has proved to be no exception, as the response to public hearings on sexual and gender-based violence has shown.
In October 2019, The Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) held hearings on sexual violence perpetrated during the regime of former president Yahya Jammeh. One of the survivors, Bintou Nyabally, told the TRRC that she was arrested twice in May 2016. During her second arrest two masked paramilitary officers raped her.
Binta Jamba told the TRRC on October 30, 2019 that a former Gambian Interior minister, Ousman Sonko, raped her more than 60 times. On October 31, 2019, Toufa Jallow, a former beauty queen, testified that President Yahya Jammeh raped her in the State House during Ramadan, as a religious ceremony was going on.
These testimonies sparked public debate in The Gambia. The comments of one Facebook user epitomised the public’s reaction to the suffering of these women who had the courage to speak out about the sexual violence they had been subjected to:
This comment, and many others on different social media platforms, are a stark reminder of the general lack of faith in and empathy for women in difficult circumstances. Several women’s rights organisations expressed solidarity with these victims, but the survivors still faced bullying and harassment online. These reactions illustrate this:
The question that comes to mind is, why is the public unable or unwilling to believe that women were sexually assaulted during the brutal 22-year rule of Yahya Jammeh, yet they have no doubts at all about other forms of human rights violations committed during that time?
These reactions highlight the culture of silence and victim-blaming that is so common in The Gambia. It also underlines stereotypes of victims of sexual violence – that they should look and act a certain way for their story to be believed. This Facebook user’s comment captures the essence of that fallacious premise:
This, and other comments on social media, alluded to the idea that women have to “look raped” to be believed. There is an unspoken expectation of how a person who has been raped should look like, and how they should tell their story. Some of the comments seemed to target the women who testified before the TRRC simply because they had the audacity to go on national television and explain in detail what had happened to them. They certainly did not fall within the undefined definition of how survivors of sexual violence should look and act; therefore they are not to be believed.
The TRRC seemed to be alive to the damage this negative reactions were likely to inflict on its mission to unveil the truth of that terrible time and seek to engender healing. On October 22, 2019, it issued a press release urging the public to refrain from harassing survivors of sexual violence who had testified.
“The commission will not allow survivors of sexual violence to be re-victimised through the TRRC process simply because they have been courageous enough to break the culture of silence in The Gambia and speak out against such horrific violations. We should applaud and support them. If such harassment and intimidation of victims of sexual violence persists the commission may resort to frequent use of in camera hearings… as a witness protection measure to safeguard their security and wellbeing,” it said.
The whole process has brought into sharp focus how culture treats sexual violence – the fact that the perpetrator is more likely to be believed and protected than the victim. Clearly, more needs to be done to protect survivors of sexual violence in the transitional justice process.