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Women protest ‘rape culture and impunity’ in Senegal

‘We are here to make the culture of rape stop, for justice to do its work’ say women after a series of high-profile rape cases in the country

Fatou Warkha Sambe
6 July 2021, 12.45pm
Aïssatou Sene speaks to the press at the protest in Dakar, Senegal on 3 July 2021
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Fatou Warkha Sambe

Sitting in a circle, brandishing placards and wearing purple T-shirts reading ‘Justice for Louise’, several dozen Senegalese feminists gathered in Dakar's Place de la Nation on Saturday to protest what they called a culture of rape and impunity in the country.

The women, and some men, were demanding justice for a 15-year-old girl, known as  ‘Louise’, who was allegedly raped by the 19-year-old son of a celebrity journalist in May. A video of the incident was widely seen after being posted online. 

The victim’s mother lodged a complaint, but police were slow to act. Worried about a potential cover-up, activists launched the digital campaign #JusticePourLouise in late June. The hashtag started trending on social media, both in Senegal and among the diaspora. On 29 June, the accused was charged with rape – a month after the alleged attack took place.

This is the second high-profile rape case in Senegal in recent months. In February, a massage parlour worker accused the popular opposition politician Ousmane Sonko of raping and threatening her. Sonko was arrested in March. Thousands of Senegalese people took to the streets to support him, leading to violent protests that left at least ten people dead.

The victim, meanwhile, became the target of harassment and was forced to go into hiding. Rights’ advocates worry that the incident will leave sexual assault victims more afraid than ever to come forward. (Sonko is currently out on bail.)

“There is a lot of rape and a lot of femicide in Senegal,” said Aïssatou Sene from the newly formed Senegalese Feminist Collective, which organised Saturday’s sit-in. 

“We saw the impunity […] We went out today for Louise and for all the Louises in Senegal. We are here to demand the culture of rape stop, for justice to do its work, and for the law that was passed to come into force.”

Women protest in Place de la Nation in Dakar, Senegal on 3 July 2021
Women protest in Place de la Nation in Dakar, Senegal on 3 July 2021 | Fatou Warkha Sambe

Rape was criminalised in Senegal in January 2020, following a campaign by civil society groups. Previously, it was considered a ‘minor offence’ with a maximum prison sentence of ten years; the new law sets a minimum of ten years and a maximum of life. But the law is not being used, say activists. 

“For several years, we have noted the resurgence of cases of violence, especially against women and girls,” said Ndèye Madjiguène Sarr Bakhoum, a lawyer and member of the Association des Juristes Sénégalaises, which promotes the rights of women and children. She said that better communication and more advocacy is needed to ensure the law is applied.

‘We cannot be feminist and complain in our houses, in front of our televisions. It is we women who must take charge of this fight’

The #JusticePourLouise campaign and last weekend’s demonstration mark a shift in attitudes within Senegal. Young people who have never been involved in feminist activism came out to show their support.

"This is the first time I’ve taken part in these kinds of events,” said Lassana Sané, a student. He said he joined Saturday’s demonstration in solidarity with the women in his life. “Every year we hear of rapes – every month it continues – and it has to stop. I think it is important that men get involved because we have to support women. In fact, it must start with us.”

Abraham Sarr, a civil servant, also said he came out to support women. He believes combating violence against women depends ultimately on education. “[We must] better educate our children, boys and girls, to respect our girls better,” he said.

Sociologist and activist Marie-Angélique Savané, a well-known pioneer of feminism in Senegal and throughout the African continent, was also present at the Dakar sit-in, despite being in ill-health. “We cannot be feminist and complain in our houses, in front of our televisions,” she said. “It is we women who must take charge of this fight.”

Sene from the Senegalese Feminist Collective knows there is more work to do. “We protest today under the slogan #JusticePourToutesLesLouise [Justice for all the Louises],” she said on Saturday. “We remember that Louise's case is one among thousands, and we are there for the Louises who are being raped as we speak – because we know that in Senegal there are still three rapes a day.”

In May, a 27-year-old woman was raped, killed and thrown into a septic pit in Louga, in north-western Senegal. The same month, a female university student from Congo was killed in Dakar. 

“The feminist movement is something that existed in Senegal before us; this is not something new," Sene said. "Today our voice is amplified on social networks. Our organisation […] is not going to stop as long as there are victims."

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