Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh weaponised sexual and gender-based violence, wielding it against his perceived enemies and using it to bend people to his will, according to the report of the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
These widespread crimes include rape, sexual exploitation, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexualised torture. The commission found that sexual violence was also accompanied by other violations including forced labour.
The commission also found that sexualised torture, forced nudity, and rape were adopted as organisational policies of the former regime.
It listed some of the “more appalling” of these crimes as including the sexual violence and abuse of participants of scholarship pageants and “protocol girls”; the rape and sexualised torture by state security officials of both male and female detainees; the violations committed as part of the infamous purge of “witchcraft”; and the sexual violence during the Presidential Alternative Treatment Programme (PATP).
“These violations were perpetrated mainly by security agents and former government officials. The commission received credible evidence that former President Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh himself committed some of the most egregious of these violations against women and girls through a ‘sophisticated system’ using state institutions and resources,” the report says.
Jammeh and other senior government officials (including senior security officials and government ministers) subjected women and girls to a range of sexual violence including rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and sexual exploitation, with impunity.
The TRRC recommends the prosecution of Yahya Jammeh and several senior officials in his administration for their role in committing rape and other forms of SGBV.
Jammeh and his aides used the PATP massaging sessions to inappropriately touch patients without their prior consent and in a manner viewed as degrading by the victims. The witch-hunting exercise that he ordered was characterised by sexual violence and forced nudity against those accused of being witches and wizards.
The report states that sexual violence was used to repress, punish, intimidate, humiliate and ill-treat men and women who were opposed to or perceived as being opposed to Jammeh or his Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction (APRC) party. Members and perceived supporters of the United Democratic Party (UDP) and their family members were frequently targeted for arrest, detention, and sexual violence.
It adds that sexual violence was committed in various places, including public locations such as the State House of the republic, the residence of the former president in Kanilai, at his farms in Kanilai village, the premises of the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), at the State Central Prison (Mile II), at Fajara Army Barracks, and in private homes and vehicles
The commission found that forced nudity was a modus operandi of NIA agents, who particularly seemed to favour it in their efforts to debase and humiliate the male and female detainees they interrogated.
“These powerful men took advantage of their positions of authority, the vulnerability of the women and girls, and the climate of fear that they themselves created to commit these violations,” the report says.
Women were also secondary victims of violations inflicted on the men. When their husbands were killed, widows found it difficult to support their families, and women whose husbands were subjected to sexual violence were denied the ability to have sexual relations with their spouses.
The commission said it had heard “testimony after testimony about the impact of these crimes – about the trauma, shame, and misery that scores of women and girls have had to live with for so many years”.
In a repressive regime, there was no access to justice for sexual violence committed by the head of state and senior government officials. The victims also had no access to medical care or psychological support.
The commission recommends the prosecution of Jammeh for the rape of former beauty pageant winner Fatou Jallow aka Toufa and Protected Witness DB18 and FB17. Jammeh ordered the Junglers to give “the full treatment” to Protected Witness FB17, which meant rape.
The commission wants him held responsible for the actions of the NIA agents, saying he knew they were regularly raping and sexually assaulting detainees, and forcing nudity on them as a tool to humiliate and break them, yet he did nothing to stop them.
The TRRC comments about the silence that usually surrounds sexual violence, saying it leads to impunity and eventually its normalisation.
The report lists the multiple barriers to reporting SGBV as ranging from stigma, shame, societal attitudes (which privilege men over women), victim-blaming, and fear of retaliation. These had led to marked reluctance among victims to come forward to testify about their experiences despite the commission’s assurances of protection and offer to allow them to speak in private.
“This, in turn, translates into under-reporting of SGBV, pushing it into the shadows and making it pervasive throughout the mandated period and even during the public hearings when the TRRC found it difficult to get witnesses to testify on their experiences of SGBV. The few that had the courage to do so were harassed after their testimonies,” the commission says
According to the report, most victims did not report the violations due to fear of reprisal, having nowhere to report since the perpetrators were from the security agencies and sometimes high-ranking state officials.
In addition, the culture of fear that existed under the Jammeh regime and the cultural and social norms in The Gambia’s patriarchal society suffocated the rights of women and girls to their detriment, and silenced the crimes they were subjected to.
“Sexual violence was not reported due to the stigma and shame that accompanies disclosure and the pressure to place family honour at the centre and above one’s own suffering,” the report says.
The commission also recommends the prosecution of former police commissioner Ousman Sonko for his role in the rape of Binta Jamba, a 15-year-old girl in Lamin Daranka, and Protected Witness F, and the harassment of five female prison officers of The Gambia Prison Services
The commission asks the government, through the Department of Social Welfare, to provide and run facilities such as one-stop centres with more trained staff and adequate facilities to receive and assist victims.
It also wants the government to ensure sufficient funding to the Child Protection Unit, capacity building of the staff, construct a separate structure to reflect the new trend, hire experts such as psychologists, interpreters, and social workers. Vehicles and fuel should be allocated to enable the unit to embark on a sensitisation campaign to prevent the crime of SGBV.
The government is asked to establish proper and functioning safe spaces and shelters for victims of SGBV, especially female victims.
Police stations should have friendly spaces for SGBV victims, as well as sexual harassment policies in place. They should have special diaries to ensure confidentiality of cases, the TRRC says.
It recommends the enforcing of the Women’s Act 2010 and the Sexual Offences Act 2013, as well as making the National Women’s Policy mandatory for all public and private institutions to ensure that the violations do not recur.
The government is asked to expand the one-stop centre approach for the management of SGBV, and improve the reporting mechanism by introducing a toll-free hotline that is accessible to all. Security sector reforms should include thorough education of law enforcement officials in dealing with SGBV cases and impartial enforcing of laws and institutional policies.
The government and civil society organisations are urged to educate and sensitise all relevant government institutions and the Gambian people about their rights and responsibilities, and on sexual and gender-based violence through community-based outreach activities, civic education, and women’s empowerment initiatives.
The commissioners have asked the government to provide funding to key and strategic units of law enforcement agencies to ensure timely response and investigation of reported cases.
In addition, the commissioners want special focus placed on research, education, and training in building capacities and expanding support to communities that need assistance while targeting behavioral change.
They want the University of The Gambia to consider partnering with agencies in researching this area and setting up a programme to train clinical social workers.
The commission says it recognises that reparations for SGBV must include individual and collective measures, including restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition.