It had long been an open secret in Gambia that former President Yahya Jammeh hand-picked young women to work in his office as so-called protocol girls whom he harassed and abused. That changed last month when Fatou Jallow, a former beauty queen known in Gambia as Toufah, became the first person to publicly accuse the exiled dictator of rape.
Her testimony, told to investigators from Human Rights Watch and Trial International, has sparked an overdue reckoning in Gambia, where women have begun sharing stories of sexual assault on social media with the hashtag #IAmToufah. Last week, more than 200 young activists marched in Gambia’s capital, Banjul, calling to break the silence on sexual violence that became endemic during Jammeh’s 22-year regime. This nascent #MeToo movement comes as Gambia is attempting to deal with its painful past through a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparation Commission that began in January.
The details of Jallow’s story have shocked the nation and made international headlines. In 2014, when she was 18 years-old, Jallow was crowned queen of Gambia’s state-sponsored beauty pageant, which Jammeh had lauded as a “means to empower girls.” Over the next six months, she said the president lavished her with a $1,250 prize and other gifts, had running water installed at her family’s home, and offered her a position as a “protocol girl,” a seemingly glamourous job working on presidential events, but she declined. Then he asked her to marry him, which she also refused.