Almost five years into Gambia’s post-dictatorship era, rape allegations remain widely reported in the country to the great disappointment of Gambian women. The end of the dictatorship in 2017 sent waves of hope for women, many of whom fell prey to various forms of abuse by the former regime.
The dictatorship crumbled in the December 2016 polls, and Gambian women hoped that news of horrendous sexual violence against them was history. As we’ve learned from testimonies at the Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission, sexual abuse was an element in the systemic tools of the 22-year entrenched dictatorship to subdue women. Some grave allegations even mentioned the former president as directly involved in rape cases. But five years on, rape continues to be frequent in The Gambia.
“I am a survivor of sexual violence. A close family member raped me. I can tell you I am still living with that trauma, but I cannot share this story widely. Not only was I cautioned by my parents to let it go, but I am personally afraid of the stigma that will forever haunt me if I do,” Nini Ngai (not her real name) said.
Ngai has now completed her secondary education. Although the trauma continues for her, the dream of making it in life is undoubtedly shown in her face.
Sexual abuse to subdue women
The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) has conducted an exclusive hearing in 2019 on gender-based and sexual violence during the dictatorship. Several women have openly testified, accusing the former President, Yahya Jammeh, and his security officers of rape.
Fatoumatta Jallow alias ‘Toufa,’ a beauty pageant contestant, was among the victims, claiming the former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh raped her at State House.
She kept the story to herself for years because she believes that nobody will believe her claim, knowing that Jammeh was the most powerful person in the country.
“Who am I for anybody to believe me, and where do I say this, when do I say it? What do I expect is going to happen? This was what happened on the night Yahya Jammeh raped me, and how he did it,” Jallow told the TRRC in 2019 as she gave an account on how Jammeh forced himself and abused her at State House.
Jammeh’s ex-chief protocol officer Alagie Ceesay also testified at the commission, where he confirmed the former president’s involvement in sexual violence.
“Jammeh has [an] appetite for women. He is obsessed with beautiful ladies. That was an open secret at State House during his regime,” he says.
The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) conducted consultations with rural women and compiled the report “Women’s Experiences of Dictatorship in the Gambia.” The Centre disclosed that the Jammeh regime sexually and economically exploited several women during the forced labor on the president’s farms. “Officials visiting the farm in Kanilai will entice the women (who were working at the president farm) into having sex with them by offering them money. They would identify the women during the day, and at night they would send soldiers to these women. The women were afraid to refuse for fear of being tortured or harmed.”
Though the public administration authorities do not send women to the president’s farm to exploit them sexually, reports of rape and sexual assault cases are still frequent in the Gambian communities. Meanwhile, the government and the civil societies have exerted more commitment to end the country’s menace. This engagement resulted in promulgating laws that protect women and girls and intensified campaigns across the country.
Persistence of sexual and gender-based violence in communities
Bafu Jeng, a senior state lawyer who’s in charge of the prosecution of sexual and domestic violence cases, admits the growing concerns over the phenomenon, saying “it is happening in the country.”
“I will say it is something that is really happening. There is rape, there is indecent assault, there is sexual harassment, defilement, and they come in all forms. But the rape part and defilement are very prominent,” Bafu said in an interview.
According to her, the government is doing its best to eliminate sexual and domestic violence.
“For the past years, we’ve created laws that promote the rights of women and children as well as they protect women, children, and even men from domestic and sexual violence,” she told this journalist in 2019.
The Gambia has ratified and domesticated several international and regional instruments that promote and protect women and girls from all forms of abuse. In 2005 the country promulgated Children’s Act and amended it in 2016 to include child marriage prohibition. The Women Act was also passed into law in 2010, promoting women’s rights and ensuring their protection from domestic violence and sexual offenses. In addition to that, the country also has both the Sexual Offences Act 2013 and the Domestic Violence Act 2013.
The Ministry of Justice has established the Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Unit at its headquarters in 2018, consisting of lawyers, police investigators and prosecutors, and social workers. It monitors and assists the police with investigations and prioritizing the prosecution of cases in the courts.
“Domestic violence is an issue in this country, to be honest, and it has been widely common in our communities, in different forms,” says Fallu Sowe, national coordinator of Network against Gender-Based Violence (NGBV).
For gender-based violence, he said, apart from cultural reasons, ignorance is also a significant player. In the 2018 UNICEF supported a Multi-Indicators Cluster Survey carried out by Gambia Bureau of Statistics (GBOS), 49.9 percent of women said wife beating by husbands is justifiable. Interestingly, 26.3 of men condoned its perception.
“That has shown how our society nurtures women to believe that culturally and traditionally, inflicting violence on them is acceptable because that’s what the result is showing. Sometimes acceptance of violence is not about an individual; it’s about the system you were groomed and nurtured in. Most of these are physical violence,” Sowe said.
A group of civil society clusters and the government established NGBV in 2009 to raise awareness on violence against women and girls, particularly gender-based and sexual violence.
The trend of sexual violence is worrying
As of 2019, out of 2 030 cases of gender-based violence recorded, 941 cases are sexual violence, around 46 percent.
“For the past three years, the reported number of cases characterized as sexual violence has increased constantly. That shows that more people are violating women and girls.”
“I can tell you that more than 70 percent of these survivors are children – from 17 years down less than, sometimes as low as one year. Babies are sexually abused through rape and other forms of sexual violence such as fondling. Still, most of the Gambia cases are sexual violence through sexual organs, and over 90 percent of the cases are rape and are perpetuated mostly on children as well,” says Sowe.
Sexual violence remains prevalent in the country after the dictatorship going by several reports that keep coming. In March 2020, a local newspaper reported that a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs director of America Division, Melville Robertson Roberts, was charged with rape after scores of girls have accused him of raping them. There are several police reports of rape allegations against Melville.
Apart from Melville’s case, there are ongoing court trials involving the alleged perpetrators of rape against women.
Njundu Drammeh, a Gambian human rights defender, posted on Facebook recently, “Every rape is “murder”. Every living rape victim endures a death sentence. To be raped and murdered is probably the most horrendous, dastardly, inhuman, unimaginable, indescribable, painful, inexcusable, intolerable death”.