Former Gambian beauty queen Fatou Jallow, speaking calmly through tears, in a hearing streamed live on YouTube,testified on Thursday, how Gambia’s ex-president Yahya Jammeh locked her in a room and raped her.
The 23-year-old’s testimony concluded three weeks of public hearings dedicated to sexual and gender-based violence under Jammeh’s presidency, part of a broader probe by the current administration into abuses during his tenure.
“Yahya Jammeh did not want sex with me or pleasure with me. What he wanted to do was hurt me,” said Jallow, explaining that he violently assaulted her after she refused his advances.
Jammeh fled into exile in Equatorial Guinea in 2017 after losing an election that ended his 22-year-rule over the tiny West African country – a period marked by killings, torture and forced disappearances.
The Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC), an initiative of current President Adama Barrow, opened in January with an aim to investigate suspected atrocities under Jammeh and consider reparations for victims.
But the many harrowing tales of rape and sexual abuse also seek to break down the silence around a problem which continues, if not at such high levels, human rights campaigners said.
“I know it makes people uncomfortable. But it’s okay to be uncomfortable as a society before we shift things around,” Jallow said in her hearing.
One in five women in The Gambia have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the United Nations, with rape often not reported because women fear reprisals or stigma.
“Hopefully this will start a conversation in Gambia about sexual violence and about the abuse of women and girls,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer working with Jallow and other victims.
Three women have accused Jammeh personally of sexual assault or rape, including one who chose to submit a private statement to the commission instead of going public, according to Brody.
When asked why they testified, several women said it was to raise awareness about sexual assault and embolden other victims to come forward.
“Those men didn’t think that a day like this would come,” said a woman who was one of Jammeh’s “protocol girls”, young women hired to work in the Protocol Department in the presidential palace.
The woman, who testified anonymously, said that Jammeh treated the protocol girls “like his own property” and that she was fired after refusing his advances.
“I know certain people that are still working – they are still in the system, they are still in government. Maybe hearing this they will be a little more careful about what they do,” she said. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)