Violations Against Gambian Women Must Be Acknowledged

Head of Program, The Gambia

10/11/2019

“Being a female victim is a heavy weight to carry in my community. And that weight is multiplied when I feel that what I’ve been through doesn’t matter to others.” Statements such this one by a Gambian woman from the rural town of Basse have opened my “male eyes” to how vitally important it is to recognize and properly address the violations that women suffer during a conflict or at the hands of a repressive government and to affirm their human rights. In many countries that have embarked on a transitional justice process, past violations and violence against women have been a sensitive topic, one that is sometimes even avoided. These issues are delicate, and raising them without the proper safeguards can aggravate the situation for victims, who could then face stigma or discrimination by members of the community. Nevertheless, we must show solidarity with women victims of gender-based violations and take whatever steps we can to actively protect them.

Tasked with uncovering the truth about human rights violations committed during former President Yahya Jammeh 22-year rule, The Gambia’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) has conducted investigations as well as held a series of public hearings with witnesses and victims. Broadcasted widely on television, radio, and online, these hearings have transfixed the Gambian public and provided insight into the workings of Jammeh’s repressive regime.

Yet, to date, only 6 percent of the witnesses who have come before the TRRC were women (17 out of 108 witnesses), and, of those, only a few testified about what happened to them directly. In a session beginning this coming week dedicated to sexual and gender-based violence, the TRRC will hear from some women who have dared break the silence around sexual violence in The Gambia.

These hearings are an important step toward the inclusion of women and their experiences in the Gambian truth-seeking process. But we cannot stop there. Three weeks of testimonies will not unpack all the ways in which Gambian women have been and continue to be affected by past violations and the pervasive culture of violence against women. It is also important for the TRRC to investigate and bring to light acts of sexual violence that male witnesses and perpetrators have alluded to in public statements.

During the hearings, we will certainly feel the pain of women who testify, and we should find ways to express our solidarity and compassion. The courage of these women to talk publicly about what they suffered is to be both praised and encouraged. However, these testimonies must also push us all to build a society that protects women from violence and from harmful cultural or traditional practices that engender violence against women.

As a man, but also a husband, brother of women, and father and uncle of girls, I am deeply concerned by women’s experiences of abuses and I think it is time for men and women to join together to eradicate the causes of these violent acts. To that end, it is essential to sensitize the public and instill a sense of empathy for victims. Doing so will help galvanize public support and pressure the government to recognize violations against women and enhance measures to protect them. It is also important to make sure that these efforts are not limited to educated women in cities, but also reach out to and involve women in rural areas.

“As president, Jammeh had the right to tell us what to do; we would be wrong to say no,” is a phrase I have heard quite often from women. It reveals the depths of both the authoritarian culture that took root in the country and the disrespect for women and their rights that is pervasive in many communities. During consultations in remote areas of the Gambia (Sinteet, Basse, and Janjanbureh) conducted by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), women revealed, shockingly, that they did not think they had suffered violations, despite having been forced to carry out hard labor in appalling conditions on Jammeh’s farms, where they were exposed to disease, lost significant income as they could not work on their own farms, and in the worst cases were sexually and economically exploited. Only after hearing from ICTJ’s experts and staff did they finally recognize that they were indeed victims of human rights violations. No, it is not acceptable to be forced to work without pay or proper food. No, it is not acceptable for soldiers to visit you at night and force themselves on you.

Finally, some of these untold stories are coming to light, giving other women the courage to share their pain and tears, too, and have the abuses they endured publicly acknowledged after so many years of crying silently and in secret.

Public hearings are an excellent way to collect women’s experiences, but they should not be the only platform for women to speak out. “Some women want to tell their stories,” explained a woman I met in the town of Janjanbureh, “but because they are shy and afraid of the community reaction, they hold back.” Additional secure channels of communication must be established for women victims, such as women-only discussion groups, other local support groups, and women’s associations. Government actors, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders should also ask women how they would like to share their stories and what would make them feel most safe and comfortable. For example, women support groups should be allowed to assemble and submit confidential testimonies, and the TRRC should travel to the regions to conduct confidential one-on-one interviews with women.

As a small step in that direction, ICTJ is helping a group of 75 women prepare a submission of their experiences and their recommendations for the future, which they will present to the TRRC next month. But, again, we cannot stop there.

The upcoming hearings will be led by women, which is crucial to creating an environment where victims who testify feel comfortable and safe. This fact, however, does not let men off the hook or give them an excuse to look the other way. Instead, we must be all the more present and supportive. Men and women both must encourage these women through positive and empathetic comments on social media and through recommendations to the policymakers on building a more equitable Gambian society. It is necessary to acknowledge the wrong done to all women victims of the former dictatorship to prevent the recurrence of such violations. As a community elder in my native country, Côte d’Ivoire, once said in a meeting with the victims, “We men should advocate for women rights to ensure stable and durable societies.”


PHOTO: Women perform a traditional song and dance at a workshop on transitional justice in December 2018. (ICTJ)