More than a year after #MeToo campaign went viral across Europe and the U.S following sexual harassment and assault accusations against prominent American filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, the Gambia’s activists Thursday took to the streets officially launch their own #MeToo campaign; #IAmToufa.
The campaign which started last week as a social media hashtag, emanated from rape and sexual assault allegations against ex-president Yahya Jammeh by a 21-year-old former beauty queen Fatou Toufah Jallow. In an exclusive interview with The Chronicle and multiple international media outlets, she gave graphic details of how she was allegedly assaulted, injected and raped by Jammeh at the presidential palace after winning a beauty contest organised by Jammeh and his officials.
Within 24 hours of her interview, #IAmToufa, started by American human rights investigator Reed Brody, went viral on the social media as young Gambian activists embraced the campaign and made it their own. By the next 48 hours, it made an unprecedented impact. Inspired by Toufah, at least a dozen young women came out and publicly accused Melville Robertson Roberts, a trained lawyer and senior official at the Foreign Ministry of rape and sexual assault. Though he denied any wrongdoing, the accusations led to the creation of #SurvivingMelville which has also gone viral. Roberts is now being investigated by the authorities for alleged rape and sexual assault.
On Thursday, more than one hundred people gathered at Kairaba Avenue to energise the #IAmToufa campaign and to use it as a symbol against gender-based violence and abuse. They wore t-shirts and held banners and placards with messages such as “No Means No” I reference raping a woman.
“We are here today to show our solidarity with Toufah and all other Gambian women and girls who endure such wanton act from cruel individuals who take advantage on them,” said Fatoumata Joof, a third year student at American University. “We are also here to tell the victims that they are not alone in this fight.”
Sirra Ndow of the Gambia Against Rape and Molestation (GARM) group said Gambian women should emulate Toufah and expose alleged perpetrators of rape.
“I want to call on the Gambia women and children to say never again to sexual violence. Gambian women and girls must be ready to muster the courage to come forward and speak up when they are raped or sexually assaulted.”
Annie Achieng, a fashion designer and a women rights activist expressed her shock and dismay that the government did not delegate a representative to the march to show solidarity with the alleged victims of rape. “To be quite honest it’s really sad that the government doesn’t come out to give voice. We want them to know that this is what we go through as women and this is something that has to stop,” she said. “We want to enjoin the police force to create a rape center where victims will come forth to relay their stories as in most cases rape and sexual violence are sensitive issues that must be handled professionally.”
Lala Touray is one of the young activists at the heart of the latest campaign against sexual violence. At the march, she attributed rape cases in the country to the way victims are treated.
“I think is very sad that nobody wants to listen to the stories of sexual assault and rape victims in the Gambian society because of the long held believe that such issues cannot be discussed in the society. This situation is not helping at all because there are many victims who couldn’t come out to speak about their ordeals,” she argued.
Touray called on the Gambia government to use the existing laws available to prosecute alleged perpetrators, stressing that unless the government starts prosecuting perpetrators, many young girls and women will continue to be vulnerable.
Until Toufa’s media appearances, getting rape victims to come out was never going to work in The Gambia because of fear that they’d be stigmatised and ostracised.
But now that latest campaign to get victims to speak out has been extended from the confines of the internet to the streets, the young activists are expected to play a decisive role in changing that narrative and changing the way sexual assault is discussed in the country.