Banjul, the Gambia – Sitting beside a banner with the words “The truth shall set you free”, Fatou Jallow, known as Toufah, recounted the details of her alleged rape by Yahya Jammeh, the Gambia‘s former president, while her family listened in the hearing room of the Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
“I know a lot of people will find it difficult to believe what I have said, when you live in a culture whereby you believe that women should be quiet. It’s a culture where you have to keep secrets, that’s the culture that I come from,” Jallow said in her concluding statement late last month.
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Jallow, 23, is the unexpected catalyst for the Gambia’s “Me Too” moment.
Earlier this year, she became the first woman to publicly accuse Jammeh of rape in an investigation by NGOs Human Rights Watch and Trial International.
She alleges that Jammeh assaulted her during a Ramadan festival at State House as punishment for refusing to accept his marriage proposal – she had caught his eye when she won a beauty pageant in 2014.
Her five-hour testimony to the TRRC on October 31 was eagerly awaited, watched by the nation as it was broadcast live on TV and the internet.
Young women wearing “I am Toufah” T-shirts sat in solidarity in the hearing room, which was open to the public.
The episode, which has seen victims speak out about being raped by members of security forces and former government officials, has exposed systemic levels of sexual violence during Jammeh’s rule.
The issue often remains hidden because the stigma attached to the victim is also seen as a stain on the family name.
The revelations have been a difficult awakening for a society where sexual abuse is, as in many countries from east to west, still a taboo.
“These were crimes committed using the power and the resources of the state, but it also shines a light onto the wider societal problems [in the Gambia] that rape goes under-reported. If it weren’t for the truth commission this wouldn’t be coming out,” said Reed Brody, legal counsel for Human Rights Watch, which is part of the Jammeh2Justice Coalition campaigning to bring Jammeh to trial.
Human rights activist Sirra Ndow, who works with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, said: “We as a country are struggling with how to deal with sexual violence. For me, the fact that this is being addressed as part of a transitional justice process is a big step forward for us in Gambia.
“The issue often remains hidden because the stigma attached to the victim is also seen as a stain on the family name.”
Speaking to Al Jazeera from her adopted home of Toronto, Canada, shortly before returning to the Gambia, Jallow said an “overwhelming” number of women confessed their stories to her after she spoke out.
“It was a learning experience, I thought ‘Oh my god, I knew it’s bad, but I didn’t know it was to this extent’.
“So, when I go before the TRRC I am sitting on behalf of these hidden voices and stories and atrocities,” she said.
Preparing to testify, knowing she and her family would have to re-live her ordeal under intense public scrutiny, was not easy.
She had already faced a backlash as some people tried to discredit her story. She is still constantly attacked on social media.
“My family in Gambia have been threatened, we have had to get security,” she said.
She believes most of her critics are Jammeh supporters, who still see him as their visionary leader, even though he has been in exile in Equatorial Guinea since January 2017.
Others accuse Jallow of being “too strong” to be a victim.
“I don’t fit the preconceived notion of what a victim looks like,” said Jallow, who has had years of counselling.
“It would be a missed opportunity and very unfair to generations to come that we were not bold enough to make sure this part of our history is documented,” she said.
Marion Volkmann-Brandau, a human rights consultant who led an 18-month investigation into sexual violence on behalf of the Jammeh2Justice Coalition, said: “The oppressive regime was very conducive to sexual violence by powerful men and Jammeh was showing the way.
“With Jammeh at the top of the pyramid, there was an atmosphere of impunity that permeated through the ranks of authority.”
You had to be ready to come to him whenever he wanted. It was more like being a sexual object for him.
Testimony by Jallow and a former protocol officer, who spoke as an unidentified witness via Skype audio, allege that Jammeh employed an elaborate system to manipulate and sexually abuse young women from poor backgrounds.
They said they were befriended and groomed by his niece and protocol chief, Jimbee Jammeh, given expensive gifts, and sometimes jobs serving at State House as his euphemistically titled “protocol girls”.
“He was taking advantage of how vulnerable girls were, he used that to abuse women. He would give protocol officers some attention and gifts, sometimes a house or a car, but then treated them like his own property,” the former protocol officer told the commission. “You had to be ready to come to him whenever he wanted. It was more like being a sexual object for him,”
Culture of impunity
Jallow said most girls did not say “no” to Jammeh, or anyone else in authority, fearing repercussions.
“My saying of ‘no’ did not come from me being brave and strong, it really did come from naivety, it came from my misunderstanding of the gravity of power that he holds because I was never political, I never really knew what has been going on,” she told Al Jazeera.
Jallow said on one occasion, she was injected with a drug and anally raped in a bedroom of the State House.
During the assault, she could hear Quranic recitation from the Ramadan celebrations outside.
“He knew he had a great cover-up, who would have thought that this was happening inside?”, she told the commission.
For its part, Jammeh’s APRC party has previously denied the claims.
Volkmann-Brandau said a culture of impunity remains in the Gambia, long after Jammeh’s departure.
“There’s a whole mindset that needs to change,” she said, noting sexual abuse allegations that have emerged on social media with the #IamToufah movement.
Horejah Bala-Gaye, the TRRC’s deputy lead counsel who questioned witnesses said it is time for the Gambia to get a grip on the issue.
“Hopefully, this will be the impetus for transformative change,” she said.
“I feel that people are confronted with the reality and now, it’s a question of, as a nation, what can we do to deal with this?”