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Rufisque, Dakar Metropolitan region, Senegal

When she woke up, Maty didn’t know where she was. She was six years old, scared and hurt, and her mother was repeating the word “easy, easy� over and over again. A doctor was speaking, his voice deep and sombre.

That’s all I remember. And I remember that that morning, at my house, a neighbour man had told me come with me, I’ll give you a chocolate. After that, I don’t remember a thing, until I woke up at the hospital.

When they took her back home, her life had changed. The rapist neighbour was no longer there; later, she would find out that her parents didn’t want to call the police, and so they reached a “friendly agreement�: the parents of the twenty-year-old guy sent him to live elsewhere, and that was it. Now, fifteen years later, Maty still hasn’t forgiven her parents for not having turned the rapist in, for letting him go unpunished.

They didn’t have the right not to press charges against him, to leave things like that. Maybe they were ashamed, but what was really shameful was what they did.

Maty was six, and her life had changed. Her siblings, her neighbours, the local kids made fun of her; when they saw her, they repeated the same word:

They would call me sekou, sekou, which means parrot because that was the nickname of the guy who did that to me. And among the kids who made fun of me there was one girl that had suffered the same thing, but since they didn’t take her to the hospital, no one found out, so she still acts like nothing happened …

I don’t understand why they made fun of you. That’s very cruel.

Life is very cruel. I understood it right away.

Maty stopped hanging out with the other kids. When she went out she answered their
mocking and fought back, so she didn’t have any friends; she spent her time at home,
watching TV, reading, studying. In Senegal – like many other countries – there are no
statistics about rape, but the media and visits to hospitals and health centres show that Maty’s case is one of many thousands.

People say that a girl has to be a virgin, has to be pure. They say she has to keep her honour for her man until she gets married. I like that word, honour…

…she says with a sad smile. She also says that it no longer bothers her, but at the time she felt she had lost her honour. She felt that she was dirty, that everyone knew it – and she couldn’t stand it.

Maty lived – and still does – in Rufisque, a city of 200,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. She has three sisters and five brothers. She is the middle child. Until he retired, her father was a driver for a big company; her mother looked after the home and the children. Though modest, they always got by. At school, Maty also got into fights, but she was a very good student, and her father spoiled her.

My dad always gave me everything I wanted. If I walked into a store and said I liked something - a dress, some shoes, whatever- he would buy it for me. Probably because he felt guilt about what had happened.

And your mother?

No, my mother was different, just the opposite. I sometimes tell her that I don’t have a mother, only a father.

In later years, Maty never told her parents how she hated the way they had acted; in fact, the family never spoke of the rape again. Her parents acted like they had forgotten and, for a long time, she tried to do the same.

Did you ever see the Parrot again?

I saw him in the neighbourhood a few times and I would say things to him, but he looked the other way. And I preferred not to put up a show. But I’ll never see him again. He died a few years ago. They say it was a car accident. And my mother wanted me to send my condolences to his family. You have no idea how I shouted at her.

Staying healthy and delaying family formation is key for adolescent girls to live out of poverty

Maty says that she was happy. No, she says, she didn’t ask God to kill him, but she is happy to think that at this very minute he is burning in hell. Although, she says, she knows that this is not good; a proper Muslim does not wish harm on anyone. But anyway, she is the way she is, a fighter. When she was a teenager, Maty spent a lot of time alone or fighting with her siblings. To make her angry, they would call
her “the French� because she was withdrawn, haughty; she didn’t take part in their games or conversations. She preferred watching TV or, especially, reading and studying, while they were growing up to be fishermen and workers.

I spent a lot of time alone because no one could stand me. I am quick-tempered and irritable. I get angry easily.

Maty felt different, misunderstood; she only got on with her soul mate, a neighbour three years older than her, “the only one who understood me� because she had a similar past. She and her friend like the same things and have the same ideas. They understand each other without speaking, though they can also talk for hours.

When she was eighteen, Maty started dating a boy from the neighbourhood. A pleasant, big guy, he was a basketball player who had been pursuing her for months. He was a little rough and a bit of a womaniser, but Maty thought she might change him. The arguments started when he demanded that she sleep with him. Maty refused, and he threatened her: if you don’t want to, then I am going to do it with so-and-so. Maty got even angrier and less interested in sleeping with him. One day, in the middle of an argument, he forced her.

It was the worst thing he could have done. That’s when I told him I never wanted to see him again.

He apologized; he said he didn’t know what he was doing, she was so sexy, so desirable that he couldn’t control himself: in a way, he told her it was all her fault, and Maty believed it, just as she had, if less clearly, the first time. The nightmare was back.

Soon after, Maty saw a documentary on TV about sexual violence in Africa. It said
that many girls who had been raped suffered irritability, isolation, inability to concentrate, headaches: it was like they were talking about her. And the idea that she was not the only one encouraged her to visit the social worker at the teenage guidance centre in the city’s physical education and sports department.

In Senegal there are eight teenage guidance centres, set up by the Youth Ministry; these centres offer reproductive health services in the largest cities in Senegal. Had Maty lived in a small town or in the countryside, such services would not have been available. Maty had often gone to the Centre before to prepare reports for school. Though she had never asked herself why, she says, she had always been interested in these issues: gender equality, unwanted and teenage pregnancy, STIs, HIV-AIDS, violence. And she would often read and cut articles about rape out of the paper. But, she says, she never connected these things with her life. She had tried to forget and, until that day, she believed she had.

When Maty told the social worker about what had happened with the basketball player, she convinced Maty that she had done nothing wrong: he is the only one to blame, she told her, he is a coward, an idiot, a nasty person. It was as if an enormous weight had been lifted. But when the social worker told her to see a psychologist, Maty didn’t want to: that’s for crazy people and depressives, not for me. She did, however, begin
to participate in the Centre’s activities. Since then, Maty and her friend have organized forums, film screenings, and meetings to discuss reproductive health and rights issues with young people from her city. Maty has learned, among other things, thatyou shouldn’t tell young people that you are going to give them advice but rather exchange ideas with them, “because no one likes to be told what to do.�

All of this has changed me for the better. I learned how to speak in public, how to listen, not to get angry, to look people in the eye. Now I interact with the world much more.

In early 2006, the Guidance Centres set up their own voluntary HIV counselling and testing centres. The project was a success: the eight centres performed 20 per cent of all the HIV tests in the country, though there are another 120 VCT centres. Young people are willing to go to the centres because they are familiar places where they already engage in cultural, social, and sports activities, so going there bears no stigma; if someone sees a young person walking into a physical education centre, she or he has no reason to think that that person is going to get an HIV test.

The most important thing that happened to me at the Centre was gaining self-confidence. Before, when I walked down the street I had the feeling that everyone was looking at me, judging me and I didn’t want to go out. Now it is just the opposite: I have changed my demeanour, and now others are bothered by my presence because I show them I am better.

Why are you better?

I don’t know, but they seem to think so…

…she says with a laugh. Maty is finishing an undergraduate degree in Geography at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. She gets very good grades, has a grant, and intends to keep studying and to complete her masters and doctorate degrees. And to work, probably on climate issues. She still lives with her parents and all her siblings; the oldest, who is over thirty, just married a sixteen-year-old girl. Maty still reads a lot -- books from school and all sorts of novels. “As long as I learn something,� she says.

That’s why I don’t like erotic novels: they don’t teach you anything.

Well, they teach you about those things.

That’s of no use. I want to learn the important things in life. That is not life. If life is a cake, that is just the cherry on top.

Do you think you’ll ever get married?

I don’t know. I’m already twenty-two, a little old to get married. Now sixteen-and seventeen-year old girls are the ones who get married, and they are usually pregnant. I’m old, and I’m not pregnant. Besides, I’m pretty hard to take, so…

Recently a forty-year-old neighbour who is married and has two children proposed to her; he wanted her to be his second wife.

According to our Muslim law, it is permissible, but I don’t want to be anyone’s second wife. I didn’t tell him that I wouldn’t even want to be his first wife, but maybe he could tell. In any case, I am against polygamy.

Sometimes Maty thinks it would be better not to get married; other times she thinks she’d like to.

The problem is finding the kind of man I want. I don’t trust anyone, and I need to find someone to trust. Besides, I’ve been very spoiled: I don’t know how to cook, clean, look after the house. If I get married, that will be a problem. Why get married? So that a man can tell me you don’t know how to do this, you don’t know how to do that? I don’t need that. I don’t want to be given orders. I don’t want to be anyone’s slave. I want to find someone who loves me for what I am, who accepts me, who believes in me. Men always tell you that you are so pretty, so sexy. That’s what my boyfriend, the basketball player, told me that time. I don’t want to be desired. I want to be loved, which is very different.