The Current

She publicly accused Gambia's ex-dictator of rape, sparking a MeToo wave there

Fatou Jallow was 18 years old when she alleges she was raped by former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh. She details the incident and how she used her experience to empower other sexual assault survivors in her memoir.

Fatou Jallow reflects on how going public about 2014 incident changed her and her country in new memoir

In her memoir, Fatou Jallow writes about being sexually assaulted by the former president of Gambia — and how she used that experience to empower other survivors. (Joana Draghici/CBC)

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Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault. 

For years, Fatou Jallow kept her experience as a rape survivor — and her whereabouts — a secret from her family and fellow Gambians. 

But today, she hopes sharing her story will help inspire other women in Africa to stand up against sexual assault.

"I am speaking to crowds and having access to people that [my rapist] does not have access to anymore," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "I am inspiring a lot of young girls who will be able to say no to men like him and fight for their rights as well."

Jallow who goes by the nickname Toufah, alleges that Yahya Jammeh, the former president of Gambia, sexually assaulted her when she was 18 years old, shortly after she was crowned queen at a 2014 Gambian state-sponsored beauty pageant — and rejected his subsequent marriage proposal.

Former Gambian president Yahya Jammeh poses for pictures with Fatou (Toufah) Jallow after she won a beauty pageant on Dec. 24. 2014 in Banjul. (Human Rights Watch)

"I thought I had [the option to say no]. That's why I said, 'Oh, no, I don't want to get married now,'" she said. "But in that type of situation and dictatorship, you really just don't — something I came to learn later."

In a 2019 statement to The New York Times, Jammeh's party called the rape allegations by Jallow and two other women a smear campaign "aimed at tarnishing the good reputation of Gambia's legendary and visionary leader."

But in December, a Gambian Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) recommended that Jammeh be prosecuted for human rights violations including murder, torture and rape committed during his reign.

"After these very powerful, public testimonies that really impacted Gambians, there is a strong expectation, both at home and abroad, that the [Gambian] government will deliver justice, including criminal trials," human rights lawyer Reed Brody, who directed the Human Rights Watch investigation that first published Jallow's testimony, told The Current.

"The devil will be in the details ... but I think the movement towards justice has reached a point of no return."

Jallow, who fled to Senegal and then Toronto to escape the sexual abuse, details her story in her memoir,Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African MeToo Movement. 

She hopes her the details of her story will help other African women stand up to their own abusers. 

What it has done for women is to say, 'Oh, if we can talk about the dictator... no one is above the law.-Fatou Jallow

"When he was raping me, the idea was to take power away from me, was to demean me, was to make me realize that I am nobody and I have no voice or no say," she said. 

"So … to have a book and just have people read it and resonate it … that's a lot. He doesn't have a book. I have a book [and] that's cool."

An African MeToo movement

2017 saw the breakthrough of the MeToo movement, after multiple allegations of sexual assault and rape were made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. But the term was first coined by Tarana Burke in 2006.

"I'm trying to tell survivors that Me Too is first and foremost for us. We look at each other to say, 'Oh, that happened to you, it happened to me too,'" Burke told The Current last year.

"We empower each other ... and then it's a declaration to the world."

WATCH | Tarana Burke 'all over the place emotionally' as MeToo went viral

Tarana Burke coined ‘Me Too’ years before it went viral

1 year ago
Duration 3:40
As the Me Too movement went viral with the help of survivors in Hollywood, Burke worried that the people she wanted to help would be forgotten.

Jallow, who was living in Canada by then, remembers the movement and conversations around MeToo and sexual assault being "intense and understood" in the West. But for countries like Gambia, those discussions were non-existent, she said.

That's why when Human Rights Watch asked her to speak out about her allegations against Jammeh in 2019, she felt it was the right time to reveal her story.

"That press conference in Gambia in 2019 really sparked that moment for us, because there was a MeToo story to be told there, and of a very powerful person — actually, the most powerful person in our country," she said.

Brody said the press conference was initially going to be held in London, but Jallow convinced them to move it to Gambia.

"We spent a lot of time explaining to Toufah, 'Look, your life is going to change.... This is what you are exposing yourself to. You really want to think about this carefully,'" he said.

"She wanted to go and she wanted to be public, and she said, 'No, I want to tell my story in The Gambia. I want people in The Gambia to hear me.'"

Jallow was initially going to speak under a pseudonym in order to remain anonymous. But she refused, surprising some HRW officials.

"It wasn't right, because the main reason why I wanted to speak out was to humanize and put a face to the stories," she said. "So I told them I was going to go with my name."

We launched a hashtag called #IamToufah; that became a rallying cry. There was a street demonstration with women, and ... it triggered a MeToo movement.-Reed Brody

Her testimony "hit like a tsunami," said Brody, earning praise from Gambia's attorney general Abubacarr Tambadou, among others.

"We launched a hashtag called #IamToufah; that became a rallying cry. There was a street demonstration with women, and ... it triggered a MeToo movement."

Jallow believes that conference played a key role in empowering more women to step forward and reveal their experiences.

"What it has done for women is to say, 'Oh, if we can talk about the dictator, if we can talk about someone that has terrorized our lives … no one is above the law,'" she said.

Jallow, pictured here boxing. She believes the news conference she did with Human Rights Watch played a key role in inspiring more women to step forward and reveal their experiences. (Human Rights Watch)

In October 2019, Jallow testified before the TRRC and clarified her accusations against Jammeh. By this time, Brody said Jallow was met with an overwhelmingly positive response.

"It's very difficult to build a movement when you don't have a public story, a public face — and Toufah has become that," he said. "She wears it well, and she's using it to shed light on a system — and not to say 'this only happened to me.'"

Jallow said listening to women's stories is important, but real change needs people to do more than that.

"After we talk about it, when we retraumatize women, when we have them come together and say 'This has happened to us,' as a community and a culture and institutions, what do we do to hold those people accountable in Gambia?"

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Joana Draghici.

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