When you hear about something bad happening to someone else, you never think it will happen to you. And if it does by chance happen to you, you want to believe that whoever harmed you would be punished by the justice system. Before joining the Peace Corps, I heard about sexual assault cases but never thought I’d be one of the victims. I was lucky in a lot of ways that things didn’t go worse than they did, but I still wanted the offender to be punished.
After the assault, it took the police over a month to catch the offender. Once they did, I decided to press charges. I was not only pressing charges to ensure my own safety but also the safety of the girls in the village. My host sisters were terrified of this young man. In order to press charges, I had to sit in a room next to the guy who assaulted me while I explained my story to the Commandant. I was told I would go to trial any time in the next 6 months.
A week after pressing charges, a guy I knew from Nafadji passed me on his motorcycle and said that my trial date was the following Friday. I was incredibly confused. How did this random guy know my trial date? I called the Commandant, and he said he still didn’t know when my trial was going to be. Turns out the random guy was right, and I’m lucky that I bumped into him. I didn’t get my Summons until less than 24 hours before the trial, and I had to travel to another region since there’s no court in my region. Either they were hoping I wouldn’t be able to make it to the trial, or this was just another indicator of this broken and inefficient system.
My friend LaRocha traveled up to the neighboring region for the trial, and we went to court the following morning with a Volunteer Support Assistant (VSA). Since the offender was a 16-year-old boy, the trial was in a juvenile court, which was closed to the public. Before the trial, we were sitting on a bench outside the courthouse, and a woman came up and greeted me by name. I thought it was odd that someone in this other region would know my Senegalese name, and I quickly realized that it was the offender’s mother. She stood in front of me and removed her head wrap and then her shirt, and began bowing down to me topless, begging for my forgiveness. I felt incredibly uncomfortable, and thankfully the VSA asked her to stand up and put her shirt back on. As bad as I felt for this woman, she wasn’t going to change my mind about going to trial.
In the courtroom, I was seated at a rectangular table with the offender’s mother to my left and a translator to my right. Across the table was a panel with the judge, procureur, juvenile program director, etc. The part that still baffles me is that the offender was asked to stand behind my chair. His hand was on my chair throughout most of the trial, gripping it tightly.
The trial seemed to be going well, because the boy admitted that he was guilty. The procureur gave a long speech about how this young man was a menace to society. His crimes were getting worse (this is the same young man who stole a backpack out of my hut the year before). He has stolen from others in the village and may have done worse things to the young women in the village. The mother admitted that she couldn’t control the young man anymore. It was obvious to me that this boy would be sentenced to a detention center. At the end of all of the speeches, the judge announced that the offender would go back to my village with his mother. What?!?
At this point, I was in tears and couldn’t believe my ears. How could they send an offender who they referred to as a “menace to society” back to the village? It made absolutely no sense. Thanks to the help of some friends outside the courtroom, the procureur agreed to meet with us to explain the sentence. Apparently they didn’t think that there were any spots open in a rehabilitation center, so there was nowhere else they could move him. The part that angered me the most is that this man said to me “this is Africa, nothing works here”. He blamed the faulty justice system on lack of resources and the nature of third world countries. My friend asked the juvenile program director if he could call the detention centers that moment to find out if there was a spot since they hadn’t even checked. His response was that “this is Africa, things are slow here”. These cop out answers reflect the fatalistic nature of this culture once again. No one believes they can change anything since everything is up to Allah to change. They accept things the way they are, even when systems like this are clearly broken.
Lucky for me, I’m an American. Once the U.S. Embassy and Peace Corps put pressure on the court, magically a spot opened up in a detention center. But what if I wasn’t an American? What if I was a Senegalese woman who had been sexually assaulted or raped? After seeing the dysfunctional nature of the justice system, I may not have even bothered going to the police if I knew I wouldn’t have been taken seriously.
Things seemed to finally be falling into place. I set up my new site in Saraya and was prepared to move in this week. The papers for the offender to move to the detention center went through, and he is ready to move there. But there’s a catch. Tabaski, the biggest Muslim holiday of the year, is tomorrow. Everything shuts down for the holiday, including the detention center. The center closes, and all of the juvenile delinquents get to spend Tabaski with their families. This means the offender was released back to my village unsupervised for the holiday. This makes complete sense, right? Let’s send all the criminals home for the holidays!
This justice system is broken, and the saga of my assault has been an exhausting one. I’ve had to fight every step of the way to get justice, and I still am not sure if everything is going to work out. As frustrating as this experience has been for me, I can’t even imagine what a Senegalese woman would have to deal with in a similar situation. This system needs to be fixed, but I don’t know where someone would even begin. Maybe the first step is that people whose jobs it is to provide justice need to believe that they can change the system. If no one tries to change anything and people continue to use “this is Africa” as an excuse for faulty systems, then they are only reinforcing the system’s dysfunctional nature. Instead of being stuck in this self-fulfilling prophecy, someone needs to break with tradition and do what is just.