Seen but not heard; the African girl child
August 1, 2018
By Binta Njie-Jatta
The scale of girl child sexual abuse in the conservative African community is difficult to estimate. More often than not, the victim, often a vulnerable girl child, is brought up on the strict principle of respect for your elders and conforming to cultural practices that define the moral code of the community. In most cases, including my own incident, the perpetrators of sexual abuse of the girl child are close family members. The community maintains silence on the occurrence of child sexual abuse and the reasons may be due to resistance to recognise the phenomena as a problem in their population – lack of awareness of the scale of it or lack of confidence by the victims to report the incidence. The associated stigma for the victim and the community, if the incident is known outside the confines of the family or community, is often used as an excuse to conceal this horrific violence against the girl child, thus allowing the perpetrators to go unpunished.
My own ordeal took place when I was 10-years-old. My mother had remarried and often spent time with her new husband. Mum hired a domestic assistant to stay with me at the family compound we shared with my uncle, a respected man held in high regard by the community. My uncle was a disciplinarian, a leading authority in the enforcement of community moral code both in our compound and at community level. Both my father and mother trusted him, and I was very fond of him.
On this fateful night, the domestic assistant who was supposed to stay with me had sneaked out of the house through the window at about 10pm, leaving me alone in the room. The night was silent, and most people in the compound were asleep. My uncle got into my room through the unlocked window. I was half asleep when I felt his hands touch my laps, sending chills all over my body. I had not foreseen this coming. I was able to gather strength I never knew I had and gave out a yell. My uncle placed his big palms over my mouth to prevent my yell from being heard. He said to me ‘I am helping you cover up with your duvet even though my pyjamas trouser was half way down. As he jumped through the window, on his way out, in a grim and terrifying voice, he warned me not to say a word of the incident to anyone. I could not doubt his command. He was the guardian of the compound’s moral code, a respected member of the community and a strict disciplinarian.
The following morning, I was so afraid that I could not tell my mother about my uncle; not even the domestic servant, who came in later in the night and found the window locked, knew anything about why I locked the window. Reflecting back on the incident, it may be because my uncle had made me believe that no one will believe such a story against an honest and God-fearing man by a daring 10-year-old child in a society that sees but does not hear the girl child.
To make sure that I will not disclose the story, my uncle capitalised on the opportunity that I failed to attend my daily Quranic studies (DARA) the following day to publicly abuse me physically. An act I took as a warning not to disclose his attempted sexual abuse of a 10-year-old. The truth is, he succeeded, as I have, not until now, not shared the story.
Over half of the world’s population is women, and the world continues to not tap into the monumental contribution that women can bring to the development agenda. The disadvantage imposed by our traditional conservative African culture must be examined to permit the establishment of equal platform for the boy and girl child. That boys and girls can hold diverse hope and dreams for their future, that the communities in which they live provides them equal opportunity to make their hopes and dreams come true. The perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence, regardless of the positions they hold in our society, should be brought before the courts to ensure that justice is served. We must feel comfortable to discuss this hidden epidemic, often with tragic consequences for the women and girl, by demolishing the culture of silence so that the girl child is not only seen but heard right across Africa.
The author is a Gambian Police Officer who is a volunteer at Concord Times for a year. This column will be used as a medium to express her views on a myriad of issues.