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
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
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
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.