Fatmata is combatting sexual violence

Where Fatmata (18) lives, assault and rape are the order of the day. Since almost witnessing it herself, she has become committed to the struggle against sexual violence in her home country of Sierra Leone.

Even though her name is Fatmata, she is also known locally as “The Malala of her community”. While Malala, the famous Pakistani children’s rights activist, campaigns for girls’ rights to be educated, Fatmata is fighting against sexual violence against women, female circumcision and teenage pregnancies. At school, she is a member of a girls’ network group and currently following a training course facilitated by the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA), a collaboration between Plan International Nederland, Defence for Children − ECPAT and Terre des Hommes. Thanks to the GAA she is learning to realise her objectives through lobbying and policy influencing.

Fatmata’s main objective is tackling the rape culture in Sierra Leone. “In the community in which I live, most of the men abuse women; it seems to be the done thing. It has happened to my friends and I almost witnessed it once myself. I heard a girl screaming, but by the time I found her the perpetrator had already fled. The victim was a fruit seller who was raped by a customer. That event is what made me commit to the struggle against sexual violence.”

Excluded and scorned

One of her responsibilities as a youth advocate is talking to rape victims. When a victim finds out she’s pregnant, she usually quits school. And that’s when another problem rears its ugly head; not only are these girls the victims of sexual violence, as a result of it they are then excluded and scorned by the community. “I impress upon them that they do matter, and that they still belong.”

When asked what she thinks needs to be done, Fatmata pulls no punches. “At the moment effective laws and their enforcement are lacking. A law needs to be put in place and anyone who breaks it should be sent to prison for the rest of his life. That would bring about change,” she insists, clearly angry about the current situation. She also believes that society must protect women against assault and rape. “Rather than looking the other way, people should protect their neighbours from sexual violence.”

Even more determined

The recent ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone certainly didn’t make Fatmata’s struggle any easier. The outbreak of this deadly disease resulted in chaos, making girls and women even more vulnerable to rape. According to a UN survey, in some parts of the country the number of teenage pregnancies rocketed by 65 per cent as a result of the social unrest.

“It really saddens me to think of all the people who died,” she says about the disease that gripped Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016. “And last year mudflows caused the deaths of hundreds more. Just terrible.” But far from sapping her spirits, these events have made her even more resolute. “All these setbacks make me want to mobilise people to unite and collectively solve the problems we face. Let’s stop them together.”