Following widespread protests in Senegal over the rape and murder of women, the law was amended in 2020 to make rape a serious crime rather than a misdemeanor. The events kicked off a conversation around sexual assault, humiliation and responsibility, led by a pop star who dared to sing about her own experiences.
From her home two hours south of Dakar, the Senegalese capital, pop star Mrs. Munas sang a song for me in her native Wolof language:
I have no fighting power
I don’t even have the strength to argue
i lost confidence
you betrayed me
you took my dearest
Please consider women
Lady Mounas is known for her playful lyrics and signature sexy style, but this song is very different. It details the emotional trauma she suffered after being raped by two men in 2011.
“It’s hard for me to sing the song without accompaniment because the words are a description of what actually happened to me,” she said. “I cry a lot to sleep. Every day, I live in shame.”
Ms Moonas said she went to the police station and one of her attackers was arrested but later acquitted. Her family wanted her to remain silent about her experience, but she inadvertently revealed the truth in an interview with Senegalese television last year.
“The host kept asking me, ‘You seem to be particularly interested in this subject, you seem to be particularly sensitive to this topic.’ So the tears started pouring out and I couldn’t control it.”
The discovery sent shockwaves through her life. Some critics said her “provocative” style gave men a “wrong impression”, while others claimed she made up the whole thing as a publicity stunt. “Some people tried to say I did it just to get attention – it really hurt my feelings,” Ms Munas said. “My own family said, ‘That’s exactly why we’re telling you not to talk about this publicly.'”
Over the next few weeks, many people contacted Ms. Munas to talk about their own experiences of sexual assault. There are some harrowing stories – one woman told her she was raped by her grandfather; another was her father’s, her mother refused to believe her.
As the story got out, Mrs. Munas ended up becoming a spokeswoman against sexual violence. She participated in a government event that toured the country to raise awareness about sexual violence and the legal support available to women. Her songs became the soundtrack for that event.
In Senegal, women have historically been heavily stigmatized, reluctant to speak publicly about rape, let alone bravely release a song about it. Ms Moonas has decided she should not be ashamed.
But for some women, being a victim of sexual violence means being ostracized by their families and communities. That’s what happened to two young women I met in Senegal’s first shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence. We changed their names.
The sanctuary is located in a quiet suburb of Dakar and is run by Yacine Diouf, the daughter of the former president. We entered through a heavy wooden door “to prevent an angry husband and family from entering,” Diouf said. The shelter is capable of housing 25 to 30 women and their children at a time. They will gain training and skills to help them live independently after they leave.
Deena is 19 but looks much younger. Wearing a white T-shirt and jeans, she scrolls on her phone. Deena was raped at the age of 15. The rape resulted in a pregnancy and she is now the mother of a three-year-old.
“The guy who attacked me was detained by the police,” she said. “He gave false testimony and let him go after a month. Even so, he recognized the child and accepted the parent-child relationship. I used that to complain, and he went to Guinea.”
Dina can barely get by on $2 a day. “Life was tough. I was in school, but I had to give up. I had no choice, I had to raise my kids. It was tough, my parents got divorced after this.”
Sitting next to Dina is Sarah, also 19. Sarah was raped last year and now she is pregnant. She didn’t go to the police station or tell anyone what happened. The rape was only discovered when she became pregnant – and then her family kicked her out. She was taken to a shelter when staff found her sleeping on the street.
“In her culture, there was a lot of stigma about being raped, so her mother and father rejected her,” explained a shelter worker who cared for Sarah.
In Senegal, the concept of “sutura” (discretionary power) can compel victims of sexual violence to remain silent, said Fatou Warkha, who runs a YouTube channel promoting women’s rights. “Sutura means women feel like they have to hide these things, so this has been a real barrier to changing the way women raise rape issues when they happen,” she said.
Warkha was part of a group of feminists who created the Dafadoy collective, which means “enough is enough.” In 2019, activists started using the hashtag #Dafadoy, like the #metoo movement, and organized sit-ins to protest against sexual violence.
That year, a series of sexual assaults against women sparked widespread protests. The most prominent is the case of Bineta Camara, 23, who was strangled to death after her killer tried to rape her. Her case has sparked outrage, not only among feminists, but in large sections of society.
Young graduate El Hadji Elias Ndoye was one of 3,000 people who took part in the protest on Dakar’s National Mall. “Because of the patriarchal nature of society here, the presence of men in these demonstrations is essential,” Ndoye said.
“Some people accuse me of being controlled by women, but honestly it’s time for women’s voices to be heard. The silent majority of men are with us because their daughters, their sisters, their families are vulnerable. “
Also protesting was the head of Jamra, Mamadou Maktar Gaye, one of the most influential Islamist groups in the country. He and Jamra stood next to their “sisters” against what Guy called the “scourge of rape”.
“It’s about men having to change their behavior,” he said.
The protests have forced changes to the law that activists such as Warkha have long fought for.
President McKee Saller officially criminalized rape on January 10, 2020, following a unanimous vote in parliament. Rape cases are now heard in criminal courts, with sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison, whereas previously they would be tried in magistrates with a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Rape was first brought to justice in Senegal in 1999, when it was classified as a misdemeanor. Twenty years later, in 2019, there were 1,026 official reports of sexual violence, half of which were thought to involve rape. But it’s hard to get exact numbers.
A representative from the Ministry of Women, Families and Vulnerable Groups told the BBC they had no data on how many women were actually affected – and in any case the reported rape statistics underestimated the scale of the problem.
Steps are now being taken to make women more comfortable when reporting sexual assaults to police. Police stations are being redesigned so that women are met at reception and taken to a separate room where they can speak to a female officer.
The changes are part of an EU-funded project led by senior police officer Commissaire Binetou Guisse, whose work monitors gender-related violence across the country.
The police also work closely with local community women who act as key intermediaries. They were called “badianu goch” – a word that means aunt, an important figure in the Senegalese family. The government is now training badianu goch to help protect vulnerable women and children.
“These women tend to know what’s going on, and they’ll bring the issue to the attention of the police,” Guice said.
The changes appear to have had a positive impact, with more people coming forward to report domestic and sexual violence, Mr Guise said.
The Association of Senegalese Jurists (AJS), which also provides free legal advice in clinics across the country, has been at the forefront of women’s rights in Senegal for decades. They said they had recorded more than 3,000 cases of sexual violence in 2021 alone, but noted that they do not have clinics in most of the country’s 42 departments.
An AJS bureau staff member told us that the new law is more complex, resulting in a longer legal process.
“Many people have been charged, but so far, no one has been convicted — in part because the new process is a lengthy process that requires extensive investigation,” said Aby Diallo, AJS president and former senior police officer.
So will this longer legal process really backfire?
Diallo doesn’t think so. “It’s a good law, but it needs better application, more magistrates and more local community understanding of how the new law works.”
She explained that under the old law, many rapists were released from prison after a few months, which had a huge detrimental effect on their victims. “Ultimately, harsh sentences may make people aware of the seriousness of these actions,” Diallo said.
But with no convictions, it’s clear that many victims of sexual violence are still waiting for justice.
Ms Moonas hopes the songs she has written about her ordeal will help other women speak out. “As a singer, I have a platform and I feel a sense of responsibility. I feel like I have to say something about it,” she said.
“I specifically call on men to stop the culture around rape and to stop making women feel like they have to keep silent.”