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AN OPEN LETTER TO A YOUNG VICTIM OF SEXUAL AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE
By Gbanabom Hallowell
Dec 14, 2009, 13:52
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I

As I write you this letter I confess that I see myself in pictures of shame, as thick guilt runs down my spine for not rescuing you last night from the talons of your senseless and abusive father. I can recall the telephone calls you put through to me in the impenetrable night, narrating to me in your helpless voice how your father my best friend had repeatedly raped you when he returned home drunk and dirty. I cried in my little corner, partly because of my own ineptitude. When I think about your innocence, that which your father abused, that which I failed to help you protect, when his beastly shadow took advantage of your soft muscles and dragged you into his dungeon of senility, I rip my garment apart. I am as guilty as your father. He raped your body, and I your last hope.

II

I should have sensed it in my friend, your father. How could I have missed noticing his wicked intentions, the dirty guttural voice whispering in your unsuspecting ear, the feigned fatherly affection? The man who should have protected you like a wall surrounding a beautiful mansion became the plunderer. Consumed by his own selfish desire, the greed of a pig, he defiled his own creation; a man whom the countrys legal system had once tried and found guilty of sexual harassment against a neighbors daughter, and had been told to keep off several kilometers away from her. Indeed, such a man was really supposed to keep off every girl child millions of kilometers away. What a blunder on society to think that your father was capable of treating you as a daughter. My friend, a phrase I now hate to use when referring to your father, is indeed a sick man; but one can also say that the society itself has been very careless in protecting the girl child.

III

Yes, I acknowledge that you have suffered a lot in the hands of our traditional laws as much as you have suffered in the hands of the patriarchal bullies. At a time you were supposed to be working on your final secondary school examination, your mother was busy forcing you into succumbing to genital mutilation. It is shocking to learn that after so many complaints you had made to her about your fathers sexual advances all she could say was that your being uncircumcised was the cause of your father abusing you. She took you away to God knows where, and had you knifed alongside a dozen other innocent girls. But even then, your father would not stop touching you improperly. Again, when you mentioned that to your mother she accused you of wanting to drag the family name into disrepute. In no time, she began arranging suitors for you, accusing you of being hyper-sexual. Even when you told her that you wanted to be as educated as the exemplary women of this country and of the world, she would not listen to you. With suitors invited to bid for your hand, your mother exposed you to public ridicule. I can still remember how, in tears you told me that you felt as if you were a mere property for sale.

IV

Im disappointed to learn that even your school violated your gender! Was it the principal or your class teacher who told you that women were only fit for the kitchen, and that you were incapable of pursuing a career in science? In addition, you mentioned that your science teacher was never patient with the girls like he was with the boys? I remember when I attended a PTA meeting on your behalf, and one of your teachers mentioning to me that it was not good for you to be as ambitious as a boy. I was moved that you wasted no time in asking me whether that constituted an abuse. I remember telling you that indeed that teachers statement constituted an abuse; and that in fact, such an utterance was a part of the core of what is known as sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). In other words, your teacher was discriminating against your gender.

V

You have always asked me what I think about the future of women in Sierra Leone. Like I have always told you, Im positive that a few great strides have been made to equate women to menwhich is just the right thing to do; but we still need to prune off the patriarchal culture of convenience. I want to laud the effort of the 50-50 group, and of Panos Institute West Africa; of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, and of the National Forum for Human Rights and numerous other organizations and activists who are committed to changing the face of gender relationship in Sierra Leone! You have a right to your gender and you have the right and the responsibility to express and protect it. Mark Mattern noted in an essay "Justice and Equality" that "Rights have sometimes proven useful means of increasing equality, as well as means of creating and protecting inequality."

VI

I therefore want to encourage you to rise up and address the issues that seem to be standing on the way of your development. While I believe that you have the right to protect your privacy regarding all that you have gone through, I also think that part of the success you can gain over your abusers can result from the power of your action. Rise up and protect your individuality! Yes, they may have violated your womanhood, but you cannot allow them to silence your voice! The fight against SGBV is a moral struggle. Irrespective of the fact that we all grew up in the same environment, there are always bound to be people who think and behave differently from us. That is exactly how morality works in issues regarding SGBV and other matters. Moral theories would not talk about expectations, but about the differences in moral behaviors. Our moral backgrounds are different from one another and so we cannot peg universal characteristics to moral ideals or actions. The point at which we question moral principles is the point at which the theories of ethics step in. Ethics is guided by the principles of justice, fairness, service, honesty and community. These principles regulate our "cupboard moralities." Therefore, when we talk about justice of care, we reflect our moral convictions on the universal tenets of the principles of ethics. Perhaps it is best we asked the question as to whether we are moved to care for others out of duty or out of love.

VII


The patriarchal approach of the law enforcement agencies to SGBV crimes does not constitute duty, non-duty or love or un-love. I will argue that in this modern age, the law should learn to go beyond moral conviction and respect the rights of others to be in less pain, and provide a utilitarian approach to every problem. I mention this because I am aware of another case in which an elderly man raped a 12 year old girl, and all the chiefdom elders could result to, was for the apparently wealth elderly man to marry the girl. What an abuse by society and authorities! Was their decision an attempt to care for the victim or to protect the perpetrator? The principles of ethics should guide us when caring for others. There is a rather strong chain effect on the principles of ethics. To care for another person requires an honest intention, a justifiable approach, the desire to serve humanity, the need to be fair and a reflection of ones act of caring on the community one lives in. SGBV crimes have none of these tenets.

VIII

I have printed and sent out the letters you wrote and wanted me to circulate to anyone in the whole wide world who cares to listen to you about your fears of leaving your toddler sister behind in the hands of your abusive parents, as you flee their home. I know you rely on me as an activist, to inform the world about the bad things going on that they may not be aware of, and to spread your message to the world about the abuses women have to live through in your country day in day out; but at age 84, Im already too old and tired. Even though I will do my bit, I want to encourage you with the words of Angelina Grimke who wrote that "Human Beings have rights because they are moral beings. Women and men share the same moral stature; they therefore deserve the same rights. The mere circumstance of sex, does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to women." In my experience as an activist, I have come to believe that causes and actions are stronger and more compelling when the victims face their perpetrators in the open arena. I admire your courage, your struggle, and your bravery. For the sake of your toddler sister trapped in the hands of your abusive parents, rise up and face your own perpetrators today!!

NOTE

This article is sponsored by Panos Institute West Africa (PIWA), Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and National Forum for Human Rights (NFHR) as part of a project they have been working on together, titled Human Rights Organizations and Communication.   PIWA is an international organisation based in Dakar, working on Human Rights, Governance and Development issues with specific focus on Media engagement.  This article is part of a Campaign by the three organisations to raise awareness on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence. The project is funded by the European Commission.


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