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A Work to Change Gambia’s Narrative on SGBV Becomes Model on Transitional Justice

A very important role that one woman has been playing since the start of The Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations (TRRC) process is ensuring that greater attention be given to other forms of human rights violations such as Sexual and Gender-Based violence (as a crime that disproportionately affects women and girls).

Ms Fatou Bladeh, MBE, was concerned at the beginning of the Gambia’s transitional justice process, that without proactive efforts, other violations such as murder, enforced disappearance and torture would be given more attention than women’s rights issues when investigating human rights violations. This motivated her to focus her work to ensure that the experiences of women and girls are highly recognised within The Gambia’s TRRC process.

“When your country is investigating a history of 22 years of dictatorship and has a history of trivialising women’s rights, then there is a need for women and women’s rights organisations to take a stance and ensure that the experiences of women and girls are recognised, documented and included in that history,” she maintained.

In her work in the Gambia’s TRRC, she helped devise more ways to uncover spate of sexual and gender-based violence that occurred under the regime of ousted dictator, Yahya Jammeh. Now, international transitional justice bodies are using her work and approaches as model for other countries to replicate in their systems.

“Women played major roles both ending the dictatorship and as heading households and maintaining families during the dictatorship in The Gambia. Women constitute over 50% of the population and in 2016 they came out in their numbers and voted against Jammeh, ousting him out. When men were imprisoned, killed or exiled during Jammeh’s 22 years of dictatorship, it was the women who held families and communities together and took over the role of head of households,” she said in an interview held in her office in Banjul.

Ms Baldeh holds a Masters Degree in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Bachelors of Science Degree in Health and Psychology in the UK. Her experience in advocacy for gender justice span both in the UK and The Gambia. In recognition of her work with migrant women who experienced abuse in the UK, Her Majesty, the Queen of England honoured her with an MBE in 2019.

She returned to The Gambia in 2018, highly motivated to contribute to the rebuilding of the country after two decades of dictatorship. She established a civil society organisation, Women in Liberation and Leadership (WILL). This organization had since dedicated itself to empowering women on sexual and reproductive health and rights. WILL has been supporting the TRRC process in The Gambia over the years.

At the start of the TRRC, she found out that too much emphasis is placed on rape when discussions were held around SGBV. She advocated for the inclusion of other forms of SGBV within the process. This led her to introduce the idea of “safe spaces” and “women-only listening circles” in order to better understand the issues women faced under Jammeh.

She considers these spaces necessary in ensuring the privacy of women, to enable their confidence in opening up and sharing experiences of stigma, backlash, victim blaming and re-traumatisation. Through such spaces, women victims suggested ways that they would like to participate in the process. These were communicated to the TRRC.

Traditional Women Communicators, locally called Kanyaleng are central to WILL’s advocacy. Here, they celebrate Fatou at the launch of TRRC Shadow Report on SGBV. (Photo: Mai Media)

The women-only spaces highlighted the different forms of SGBV that they encountered. For example, when women were detained with no access to change of clothes, they are forced to go naked in front of men because they have to wash the only wrappers they have been wearing for days. Or, the fact that witch hunt victims were being undressed and battered by men young enough to be their sons or nephews. Or how female detainees were forced into relationship with security personnel who coerced them into situations where they had little powers to consent to sexual relationships.

“These spaces also highlighted the challenges that witnesses encountered, which results in them omitting certain details in their testimonies (particularly SGBV related crimes) because the environment created for their testimonies bore marks of inconvenience for them to open up to explain core details of what they went through or for the fear of stigma, backlashes and victim blaming,” Fatou explained.

Through listening circles, WILL has also been able to document all these violations as gender related. Under her leadership, WILL produced a TRRC Shadow Report on SGBV which has been quite a useful document in helping the government and partners to recognise how SGBV survivors were seriously left out in the TRRC process because as they faced several layers of barriers that affected their meaningful participation in the process.

“Beyond justice for the victims; the Shadow Report recommendations include the need to vote more women into decision making positions, to enact laws that would safeguard their integrity around challenging men, and addressing the structural socio-cultural factors that contribute to SGBV within Gambian societies,” she argued.

Fatou’s work is highly respected and valued by international organisations that work on transitional justice, such as the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC). They have been supporting WILL’s revolutionary work on sexual and gender-based violence through the Global Initiative for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation (GIJTR). During the launch of the Shadow Report, ICSC Programme Director for Transitional Justice, Sara Bradshaw said:

“We have engaged with over 680 CSOs around the world, it is WILL’s work that we constantly share with others as a model of innovative work that is truly grassroots level; truly responsive to survivors’ needs, and truly broadens public engagement in truth, justice and reconciliation issues.”

Fatou has been leading WILL’s gender justice programme which was running in parallel with the TRRC to identify and document SGBV crimes during Jammeh’s era: “I developed the women-only listening circles and safe-spaces in support of women both in the rural and urban communities of The Gambia to participate in the TRRC process. The listening circles became so successful that the TRRC adopted them especially in engaging victims of SGBV,” she explained.

In her view, killings and enforced disappearances have stopped in The Gambia but rape and violations of women still continue. “Women’s issues will continue until there is holistic approach to providing solutions,” she maintained.

Fatou suggested that the TRRC recommendations must go beyond justice to address the root causes of violence against women and girls. She emphasised the need for grassroots engagements. In her work, she stands by the principle that Transitional Justice issues must go beyond truth and reconciliation processes. That the environment needs to be retained.

The TRRC Report acknowledged victims; highlighted the need for public engagement and sensitisation around SGBV, and the need to change socio-cultural norms that perpetuate gender-based violence. This recommendation has already been picked up by WILL and under Fatou’s leadership, they have started popularising the TRRC findings and recommendations on SGBV and raising awareness of SGBV crimes within both rural and urban areas.

WILL continue to provide support to female victims through their safe spaces and they are working on launching a database to continue documenting the experiences of female victims of human rights violations who have been underrepresented in the Gambia’s Truth Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.

WILL’s approach to SGBV was “unparalleled” according to the coalition ICSC. “From our first meeting with Fatou in early 2019, we knew that WILL’s approach was unparalleled in both the strikingly personal relationships it builds with and among survivors and communities, as well as the bold, strategic advocacy it conducts on behalf of women and girls,” their statement added.

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