Contributed by Agatha Levi, a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow and Sierra Leone RLC Alumni
“Education is the reason I can stand to fight all the challenges I am facing today as a woman.”
That was one of my late mom’s favorite quotes. She liked to say that education was our only weapon in challenging the traditional gender stereotypes in our society. When I lost my mom at age 10, my world shattered. She was a strong motivation for me and my only source of strength.
Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in a family where my dad gave preferences to his sons over his daughters, left me with the unending urge to create a level playing field for all sexes, to eradicate harmful traditional practices, to create a safer place for women and girls facing gender-based violence (GBV), and to eradicate the misogynistic and chauvinistic structures in society.
In secondary school, I served in different women’s leadership roles that included being the senior officer of my school. I was also the head of the school news journal and senior guide for my school’s Girls Guide Club. I also had the opportunity to serve as a leader during my undergraduate study as the first female committee head or minister of communication of the Student Union Council at my university. I started using this platform to bring to light gender issues and promote women’s rights activities on campus.
At that point, life smiled at me and gave me so much hope as my dream of changing the traditional male chauvinistic culture in our society was on course. Unfortunately, one night during my third year at the University of Makeni, four masked men broke into my house and brutally raped me as my 1-year-old son watched in terror. This incident left me totally devastated and hopeless. My world came to a crashing halt. It affected my community engagement programs, as I was ashamed to interact with people because we live in a society where a survivor of rape and other GBV is not only stigmatized but also vilified. I made it through the agony of those years, rehabilitated myself, and came out of the furnace stronger than before. I was ready to fight for a safer society for women and girls in our society.
In 2016, I applied and through a competitive process I was selected for a YALI Regional Leadership Center training program in Ghana. I spent five weeks learning with 120 young adults from across West Africa. During the program, I was keen to learn how to manage stress and be a good leader, because I noticed my personal experience had hidden the champion in me. Luckily for me, those five weeks were refreshing as I shared, for the first time, the details of my ordeal during an all-girls session. The support I received during that meeting was massive, and I promised that I would take advantage of the rich education imparted to me during those sessions, sing my story to motivate other people in my shoes to expose perpetrators of GBV, and help heal the wounds of survivors, providing them with much-needed psychosocial counselling. That was the genesis of my journey.
Returning home from the regional leadership training program, I started a Peer to Peer educators club in schools and communities in Sierra Leone. It focused on sexual and reproductive health rights education and family planning. I met during those years Madam Naasu Fofanah, an unsung heroine who totally changed my perception of survivors and supported me throughout my healing process. Naasu was my approved YALI Mentor in 2016 after my YALI RLC program. From afar, I admired her boldness in addressing women’s and children’s issues as the gender adviser to our then-President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma.
I remember crying as I listened to Naasu’s story one day. I told her about how much pain I carried knowing that I couldn’t seek justice after I was raped. She was courageous enough to say, “I was raped too.” She knew her perpetrator but couldn’t face him because he was a religious head respected in society. That evening, we cried our hearts out and promised to support each other, to face the world together, and to bring out the positive side of surviving these traumas. The healing process for me started that night and to this day she has been instrumental in seeing me grow not just as a mentee but also as a survivor.
One of the biggest challenges I faced over the course of my work as a survivor and activist is the stigma and trauma attached to my work. Each day I tell my story as a way to motivate others not to look down on themselves after going through any form of GBV. The pain and trauma is always fresh, especially because I couldn’t seek justice due to the fact that we lack a forensic lab that could speedily investigate and find the perpetrators of this brutal act.
In 2017, I was again selected to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program and was connected with an NGO that works primarily with GBV survivors in Philadelphia. The experience sparked my interest in providing medical and psychological treatment to survivors of GBV.
Upon return, the Rainbow Initiative, an organization that provides free medical and psychosocial support for survivors of GBV, offered me a job. My work at the Rainbow Initiative since then has been fulfilling but challenging. I have achieved my goals by raising funds for the growth and transformation of the organization. I helped in the healing of wounds and cried with people, some as young as a month old, who have brutally suffered at the hands of their perpetrators. The Rainbow Initiative serves as the only rape crisis referral center in Sierra Leone. Our efforts have been duly appreciated and supported by President Julius Maada Bio, who declared a state of emergency on rape that has facilitated a multi-sectoral approach in addressing this menace in our society.
Working at the Rainbow Initiative, I have found that people still don’t know who to look up to and where to seek justice when they suffer any form of GBV. We still rely on community leaders to settle disputes, and most perpetrators are people known to the community. We have, however, seen remarkable progress in reporting cases to the police since the president’s declaration of a state of emergency on rape.
Still, the Rainbow InitiativeI has recorded a total of 1,059 cases in the first quarter of 2019, the highest since the organization’s inception in 2013.
I will note that working on GBV cases can be traumatic. I strongly advise advocates or prospective advocates to practice self-care on a regular basis, because it helps you stay mentally fit and ready to carry someone else’s trauma. You cannot give what you don’t have, so always look after yourself before thinking about others.
Our goal as women should be to create a world where women and girls are free from violence and have access to safe spaces. Only then can they fulfill their potential.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government. YALI Voices is a series of podcasts, videos and blog posts contributed by members of the YALI Network.