Growing numbers of girls in Senegal are being raped, with abuse often happening while they are at school.
"I wanted to be a lawyer, that was my dream," says a young Senegalese girl, smiling. But her facial expression suddenly changes: "I couldn't carry on studying because of what they did to me." Another young rape victim interjects: "People ask how I managed to get pregnant so young. I want some medicine to get rid of this pregnancy." Their perpetrators face trial, but these young girls' lives have been shattered. Statistics show a dramatic increase in the incidence of sexual abuse in the predominantly Muslim country, says Adama Sow, of the Group for Research and Action against Child Rape (Grave).
In 2007 there were 450 reported rapes. By 2008 the figure had shot up to 600. Rape, he says, has another hidden tragic side. He says that seven victims have now contracted Aids. "The youngest is six."
Most cases of sexual abuse in Senegal take place within the family, and the rest are happening in educational establishments like French or Koranic schools. Faced with a tendency for some Senegalese families to try to keep quiet about the abuse, the government is now trying to ensure that those responsible face justice. "You cannot educate children properly by allowing some to be raped," explains Judge Demba Kandji, director of Criminal Affairs and Pardons in the Justice Ministry. "The state has to get involved."
The ministry wants to allow state approved associations to bring suits as civil plaintiffs. "This will enable associations campaigning for the protection of the rights of women and children to press on with the process, even if the fathers and mothers of children who have been raped do not file a suit," says Judge Kandji. And that is not the only proposed reform. "In a family when a rape is known to have gone unreported, the fathers and mothers who knew but did not bring it to the attention of the relevant authority will be punished very severely, because the sentence can be up to two years imprisonment," he says. According to the judge, Justice Minister Moustapha Sourang also wants tougher rape sentences. "He has proposed a minimum of 15 years," he says.
Rape in school
According to psychologist Serigne Mor Mbaye, rape has always existed in society, but what is shocking is the increasing incidence of it and especially in schools. Fatoumata Sy, president of the Committee Against Violence Against Women, agrees. "Outside the family, it's at school that the greatest amount of sexual abuse against children has been recorded." Mr Sow remembers a case which shocked people in Senegal. "One of the girl victims was watching a television series," he recalls. "During the programme there was an erotic scene. The victim turned to her sister and said: 'That's what the Koranic school teacher does to us.'" "Starting out with that girl, it was discovered that 25 girls had been abused," Mr Sow says.
Ms Sy points out that "frequently it's people who are supposed to be educating children who are the prime rapists". "Given the growth of Koranic schools, we are seeing more teachers of the Koran who are to blame," she says. According to Mr Sow, school sometimes becomes a trap. "Often the Koranic school teachers live near to where the classes are held, so the teacher's bedroom is always close at hand." "Any girl who fails to master the lesson of the day is sent to the room. When the class is over, after the others have left, the teacher abuses her."
To make things worse "the victim often stays silent, and if it's an underage victim then the parents often don't talk - to protect the child," says Ms Sy, who has noticed another disturbing trend."If a rape is committed inside the family, then the tendency is to say that marriage is the answer, without taking into account the repercussions." "It is an extension of the rape," she says.
Dr Mbaye says this is a dangerous development. "The system validates the sexual abuse, by euphemistically calling it 'teenage pregnancy'."
Civil society, the judiciary, doctors and women's groups have now joined forces to stop the abuse. New criminal provisions are a step in the right direction, say experts. So too is a greater awareness of the need to protect those who have been raped. The young girl who had aspirations of becoming a lawyer says: "The people who raped me ruined my life. I'll never be a lawyer." But Judge Kandji hopes it is not too late to help. "A fund is being set up to support victims of sexual violence during the trial by taking care of their legal counsel. There will also be therapy sessions," he says. It is hoped that measures like these will help victims to rebuild their lives in the hope that even the girl who wanted to be a lawyer might one day fulfil her dream.
By Mame Less Camara