Small Small Thing

An exploration of the life and death of Olivia, a victim of child rape and its horrible aftermath in Liberia.

Last updated: 05 Mar 2014 08:14
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In December 2012, Olivia Zinnah died of complications from a rape injury caused when she was seven years old. This is her story.

This film begins at the JFK Hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, when Olivia Zinnah is nine years old. She is severely malnourished and handicapped, and her condition is life-threatening. Believing her injuries to be the result of witchcraft, Olivia's mother had been hiding her for years out of shame.

The doctors at the hospital conclude that her condition is the result of a brutal rape that took place when she was seven. When pressured to reveal the name of her rapist, Olivia names her cousin.

This diagnosis has severe consequences. Olivia and her mother are shunned by their tribe for seeking outside help. They are left stranded in Monrovia at the mercy of the government.

Filmmaker Jessica Vale was originally directing a different documentary in Monrovia, and when that was put on hold she stayed on, and met Olivia and her mother. Her involvement quickly became personal, and her quest to film them became a mission of hope and medical help in a country where rape is the number one crime, and the majority of the victims are children.

Filmmaker's view

By Jessica Vale

I first met Olivia Zinnah in January 2009 at JFK Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. I was there filming another documentary with US doctors on a medical mission. Olivia arrived in grave condition and was immediately put in the care of the US team. I began filming on the spot. The first time you meet Olivia in the film was the first time I met her.

Olivia had been raped at age seven and left with brutal injuries that her village diagnosed as witchcraft. For two years she was hidden away in a small hut, never treated for the injuries or infection running rampant. The American doctors moved quickly, giving her a colostomy bag and saving her life. They returned to New York leaving strict instructions: "No more surgery on Olivia until she is 16."

Weeks later, her story made its way to the United Nations and the President of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. She was quickly made a poster child for gender-based violence campaigns. More operations were carried out to "fix" Olivia, with many of them featured in the Liberian press.

Olivia's story is not an isolated case. Despite having the first female president in Africa, gender-based violence is rampant in Liberia, with most victims being children. We met many of these girls while making the film.

In September 2012, I completed Small Small Thing with the help of producer Nika Offenbac. Shortly after, we received word that Olivia was in school and doing well but that her colostomy had been reversed, against doctors' orders. Just three months later, Olivia Zinnah (aged 12) suddenly died from a bowel obstruction. To add insult to injury, the World Health Organisation had just approved a visa to give her passage to the US.

Her death made headlines both in Liberia and abroad. We were left shocked and heartbroken but with new passion to get Olivia's story out into the world. We went back to the edit room, changed the ending to the film, and partnered with various NGOs fighting gender-based violence.

Olivia was a beautiful little girl, full of hope and laughter, despite having lived most of her life in a hospital with a colostomy bag.

With the release of Small Small Thing, we have shed light on yet another country with an epidemic of gender-based violence. Thanks to mounting pressure, President Johnson-Sirleaf launched a new anti-rape campaign in May 2013 and publically acknowledged Olivia's death. But there is still much to do.

The heartbreak may never entirely heal, but we can use Small Small Thing to keep her story alive. Since making the film I have set up a website with more information about the issues it covers, as well as advice on how the public can help.

In Pictures


Small Small Thing can be seen from Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2200; Thursday: 1200; Friday: 0100; Saturday: 0600.

Click here for more Witness films.


Al Jazeera
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