The Culture of Silence surrounding Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: The Gambia

Focus on two people's hands. One person is holding the other's hands in a supportive way.

The silence is suffocating.......we must speak up!

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is a cancer deeply rooted in my society and fueled by the culture of silence. Children being a vulnerable group are not spared by this cancer. It is experienced in the form of rape and other forms of sexual abuse, child marriage, FGM/C etc. More often than not these heinous acts are perpetrated by persons close to the victim, who the victim generally trusts, mostly family members.

The Gambia has laws against sexual and gender-based violence. Some of these laws are quite progressive; the Sexual Offenses Act 2013, the Domestic Violence Act 2013 and the Children's Act 2005 to name a few. These laws provide clear provisions prohibiting inter alia acts of violence and abuse against children in any form and providing protection for victims of the said acts.

However, laws no matter how progressive and well-written do nothing but accumulate dust if they are not enforced, or their existence made known to the general public. Enforcement is an important factor as this puts perpetrators in check by punishing them for their ill-deeds while giving the victims some form healing or peace knowing that the persons who wronged them have been dealt with by the law. Also, if people are unaware of the laws protecting them they will not be able to seek justice.

This brings me to the issue of the culture of silence in my society. Growing up, I have seen and heard from my parents and relatives stories of children who were physically abused by their parents/guardians, attempted rape/ rape of young girls by neighbours, relatives, teachers etc. girls married off at very tender ages and raped by their "husbands". My childhood friends and cousins went through FGM/C. In all of these circumstances, barely any get reported to the police, if reported, the cases are quickly withdrawn because society will frown upon anyone who summons the courage to report any of these abuses as the old saying goes "you should not wash your dirty laundry in public". Society tends to blame the victim in rape cases and forces silence on victims by shaming them for what was done to them. If a child accuses a relative or her teacher of rape she is called a liar and asked why she wants to "tarnish" the perpetrator's image or she is blamed for seducing him or she is told to be silent about it in order to not bring shame to the family if the abuse becomes public knowledge.

When it comes to physical abuse, FGM/C and child marriage, it is seen as the family of the child's decision what they do with their child and even if certain members of the society realise what is being done is wrong the general sentiment is that it is not their business and they should not interfere or involve the authorities. However, it is their business as every law abiding citizen has the right to report any crime being committed in the Gambia.

The law enforcement officers who cannot be subtracted from society more often than not carry these views of society and this becomes a problem for enforcement of the laws against sexual and gender-based violence. For example, a victim of rape might be subjected to judgmental treatment by law enforcement officials, victims of child marriage and physical abuse can be told their problem is a "family matter".

The Gambia has adequate laws to tackle sexual and gender-based violence, what needs to be dismantled is the culture of silencing abuses which does nothing but empower perpetrators to continue abusing victims. Communities and their leaders need to be sensitized on the importance of reporting and speaking up against abuse of any form, likewise law enforcement officials who are the first point of contact to the victims' quest for justice.

The cycle of never ending abuse and violence against children will only end if laws are put in place, victims and society at large speak up and report these abuses and law enforcement takes the steps necessary to see that the perpetrator is punished.