The rape of our girls is not an issue we should discuss with sugar-coated words or discuss in euphemism or measured words. Rape has put girls and women in dire situations in Sierra Leone; this is a problem that requires our attention as a people, now.
The only time rape makes the news in Sierra Leone, is when the victim dies, as in the death of Hannah Bockarie in 2015 (May her soul rest in peace), who was gang-raped and killed on a beach in Freetown. Also, most recently, a five-year-old girl, who was raped and rendered permanently paralyzed, caught the attention of President Julius Maada Bio, who declared the State of Emergency, as a result.
Thank you to the president for showing that girls are worthy of our leaders’ time and attention, by acknowledging rape as a national crisis! However, the actions he has taken so far, which send a clear message of commitment to do something about the crisis, are just the beginning. We, as a people, must be equally committed to annihilating the beast that rape has become in Salone for so long. It is going to take a national conversation, concerted efforts and change in societal attitude regarding rape.
Social media responses to a recent revelation by a Sierra Leonean woman, Ms. Naasu Fofanah, that she was raped by a Reverend Mereweather Thompson, when she was only 15 years old, has not as much as raised an eyebrow in Salone or the diaspora. In this society, a woman accusing a man of rape is quickly dismissed and the woman gets disparaged for smearing his name. Let’s just say, even in today’s social media craze, such revelations never go viral, they are nipped in the bud among Sierra Leoneans.
One response to Ms. Fofanah’s letter, claims that “many people are asking…why is it only now that madam Fofanah is, making such allegations public?” And posting a response on his Facebook timeline, about the allegations against him, Rev. Thompson, asks many seemingly oblivious questions, one of them: “Would anyone who had been raped continue to keep in touch with the perpetrator?”
Surely, if “many people are asking” such questions, it is a clear indication that many Salone people are not in touch with the realities of prevalent rape in our nation, and not aware of its effects on victims. These lines of questioning are emblematic of the rape culture that has led to the perpetuation and tolerance of rampant rape of girls and women in our country.
To be clear, when we say a culture of rape, we mean that when a people in a society do not frown upon the sexualization of little girls, by giving them into early marriage and accepting adolescent pregnancies as a norm, that society has a culture of rape. This is what Sierra Leone has become.
People who ask such questions are ignorant of the harmful psychological effects of rape on victims, especially adolescent girls. It is a well documented world-wide knowledge (except in Sierra Leone) that rape victims suffer various emotional and mental harm, that may prevent them from reporting their victimization. Those who seek psychological help, may eventually process their ordeal and gain enough fortitude to open up about it, privately or publicly. Which is a major part of their total healing. But most victims, never report and they suffer a life time of consequences.
To be sure, Ms. Fofanah, has in the past identified herself as a rape survivor, which is the first step in a victim’s healing process. The only part that is new is revealing the name of her alleged rapist, which speaks more to the triumph of her healing process than anything else. Secondly, every Sierra Leonean knows that when a girl is raped, especially by a prominent or influential man, it is her word against his words. We all remember the university student who was allegedly raped by the deputy minister of education; he suffered no consequences and she suffered tremendous browbeating by the Sierra Leonean public, in addition to her physical and psychological ordeal.
The Salone public is merciless to rape victims, so it takes a strong woman, like Ms. Fofanah, to know all this about our society, and still be brave enough to open up and share her ordeal.
Regarding Rev. Thompson’s question, yes, rape victims have been known to keep in touch with their rapist, and some even fall in love with the perpetrator. Indeed, many in Sierra Leone have married their rapists, which is part of the reason for the prevalence of early marriages. The Reverend does not deny having sexual intercourse with the 15 year old Ms. Fofanah, but he denies raping her. Even if that 15 year old girl was madly in love and consented the charismatic Reverend’s touch, having sex with her was statutory rape, so if he does not deny having sex with her when she was 15, he and all the men in Salone who have cravings for juvenile girls (Juvies), must know that they are committing rape.
So, Ms. Fofanah’s story is the story of the vast majority of rape victims in Sierra Leone, who are adolescent girls; they are frequently enticed and cajoled by trusted older men in their communities, and sometimes they are forcefully raped. They seldom tell anyone, and as a result, they go on living with tremendous psychological burdens.
Therefore, for the Reverend to ask such a question, is not only insensitive to the suffering of rape victims, but evidence of his male superiority attitude. In a severely patriarchal society like Sierra Leone, men who abuse women, do not see their wrong, they feel self-righteous and belittle complaints made against them.
In Salone, men who are sexual abusers, frequently use adolescent girls sexually in the same manner they use their toilets; they have no love or compassion toward the girls, they just use and discard them when they get horny, and then on to the next victim.
Based on what Ms. Fofanah says in her letter, the Reverend perpetrated both enticement and forceful rape. As a child of 15, she was vulnerable. He was and still is, after all, a “man of God” who all and sundry nearly worship; as Salone people evoke God frequently but worship political leaders and men of God.
And like all adolescent girls in Salone know, the 15-year-old Ms. Fofanah knew that no one, not even her mother, would believe her, had she named such a prominent, influential, “respected” man of the community. Moreover, her alleged rapist, being a married Christian man, who cannot marry two wives, would have denied the child, because his wife would have never allowed him to bring an outside child into their household; a child that would have been referred to as a “bastard.”
In Salone, a child that is referred to as a “bastard” is not a child born out of wedlock; but a child for whom a man is not identified as the man who impregnated the mother. That is why Sierra Leoneans consider “bastard,” one of the worst offensive insults in our society.
Adolescent girls whose babies are considered “bastards” are those who do not name their rapist or whose rapists deny impregnating them. Which leaves the child without an identifiable father, hence a “bastard.” The girls who are forced to marry their rapist or whose rapists admit impregnating them, save their babies from this stigma and potential maltreatment, as such children are often treated badly. But such marriages mostly take place in poor rural regions, where community leaders intervene and urge a rapist to “step up” and marry a girl he had defiled, if he is man enough to admit that he had intercourse with the girl child.
However, when a girl is raped and impregnated by an affluent, prominent or influential man, in the city, marrying her rapist is out of the question, which is a blessing in disguise. Such men would never admit to having sex with the girl; if the girl names him, the girl would be chastised by the public for “tainting the good name of a respected man in the community.” In very rare cases, when a prominent man admits to impregnating a girl, his wife would never accept such a baby and the girl becomes a single mother, vulnerable to other sexual predators who promise to help her support her child. A vicious cycle of exploitation and lifetime hardship ensues.
Even though the law says that a child under the age of 18 cannot consent to sexual intercourse, no one in Sierra Leone seems to realize that each girl who is given into early marriage, is essentially being handed over to a man to be raped repeatedly, subjecting her to a lifetime of physical and psychological health issues. When an unmarried girl under 18 ends up pregnant, there is usually no law enforcement intervention, and in the rare instances when a case is reported, the Sierra Leone police do not take rape cases seriously, as the society acts like it is not a crime.
Ms. Fofanah’s wise mother knew that childbirth in adolescence was not only hazardous to her 15-year-old daughter’s health and life but would also ruin her education and future prospect of self-sufficiency. Chances are had Ms. Fofanah kept the pregnancy, she would have been kicked out of school, as all pregnant girls get kicked out of school in Salone, especially in those days. This is how so many girls’ lives have been ruined.
This is the reality that Ms. Fofanah’s mother was facing so many years ago, when the 15-year-old was too afraid to name her rapist. Her mother did not want her daughter to end up with a stigmatized child, and she certainly did not want her daughter’s chances of getting an education ruined.
Today, Ms. Naasu Fofanah is a well-rounded, educated, eloquent, self-sufficient woman, who is a passionate advocate for girls and women. The Lioness that she is, she has roared her truth by writing that letter to her alleged rapist, which should signal to all Salone men and women that the repercussions of rape last a lifetime.
We must, therefore, start talking about rape in Sierra Leone, as one of the most pervasive problems affecting girls and keeping women behind, on so many levels in our society.
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