On the eve of International Women's Day 2017, my organization, Le Projet Ecoute, kicked off a temporary art exhibition in Conakry, Guinea called "L'histoire de nos sœurs: une exposition d'arts contre les abus sexuels faits aux filles chez nous", which in English translates to: “Our sisters’ stories: an art exhibition against the sexual abuse committed against girls in our country”. 

The exhibition featured local artists that reflected on issues of rape culture, child brides, teenage pregnancy, female genital mutilation, and other pressing issues that hinder human rights and gender equality globally. One of the many objectives of the event was to stimulate conversations around the pieces and topics, in order to facilitate a more tolerant, compassionate, and equitable culture.  But as I strode amongst the exhibits, I was less immersed in the art – I was fortunate enough to spend many hours looking over them in private beforehand – than I was in the patrons, upon whom I was eavesdropping shamelessly.  What I wanted to hear the most was one particular kind of perspective: that of the teenage girl around whom the exhibition sought most to protect.

Child Marriage

The exhibition included a written poem on child marriage by Rouguiatou Dia.  It was a wildly popular exhibit that had been read hundreds of times during the week and hundreds of times, particularly by the teenagers who had some astonishing emotional responses to reading it. Some squinted their eyes or shook their heads.  Others rolled their eyes and leaned on the shoulders of their friends.  Some welled up, teary and emotional.

Then came the questions.

Hawa, 13, with her piercing eyes and her voice deeper than I expected from such a petite girl moved a braid off her face and asked me why some old men would even want to marry a child.

“Why do these parents think they’re right to give away their young daughters to a miserable future like that?” she asked.

I chewed my lip – as always, wondering how much to say to someone still learning so much about humanity– before I spoke.

I told her parents sometimes make decisions they think best for their daughters, but that adults don’t always make the right choices, and good intentions doesn't make giving a daughter away right.

“But what does the law say?” she pressed.

I was a bit surprised by this question, since not many children immediately think of the judiciary as something that really applies to them, but I tried to conceal it.

“In Guinea, the law says that both people in a marriage must be at least 18 years of age.”

Hawa sighed with exasperation and said, “Well, it's illegal to marry a girl before she is 18, and that's all we need to know."

“In some countries, it is not yet illegal.”

Her face fell.   Her shoulders slumped.

“Oh.”

Rape Culture 

In Guinea last year, according to the Ministry of Social, Women and Children Affairs, at least 25 children between the ages of 3 and 12 were victims of rape.  At Le Projet Ecoute we believe that these are mere the statistics that are documented, but a great deal of other sexual assaults against minors have undoubtedly been committed that have gone unreported, by virtue of the victims’ age and the inaccessibility of the justice system.

An artist created a piece that explored around this reality, with the aforementioned statistic scrawled on a board that perched above 25 life-sized dolls that represented the children who had been violated by family members, caregivers, and stranger.  To see dolls – a symbol of the innocence of children – repurposed as something more dark and dire naturally stirred a great deal of conversation amongst the patrons, but incomparably more questions than answers.

Beside the exhibit, a boy of about 12 years old lingered, his expression more perturbed than disturbed.

“Are you okay?” I asked him.

“I don’t understand.  Why do some men rape children?”

This conversation, though uncomfortable, was not new to me.  Much of work of Le Projet Ecoute revolved around teaching children the nuances of bodily autonomy and consent.

“Some people are sick, and convince themselves that people smaller and younger than they are do not have rights. That is why they do what they do in secret – they want to trick children into a situation they wouldn’t want to be in.  But these people are weak and cowardly, and sometimes they can scared off by telling them ‘No.’”

“Really, just no?” the boy said.  Other children had come to join us, intrigued by the spontaneous lesson that had begun.  I waved them closer so they could hear me better.

“Really.  When we agree to do something with somebody else, that is called giving consent.  But if an adult starts to do something that makes us uncomfortable – says romantic things or tries to touch you or cuddle you too much – you can refuse to give consent by telling them ‘no”: say, ‘Don’t do that’, or ‘Stop touching me like that’.  When someone refuses to give consent, the other person knows they need to stop.  And in romantic or sexual situations, you need to follow the rule of consent: if it isn’t a clear yes, it’s a no!”

A girl in a khaki school uniform dress then piped up: “What if something happens, but no one believes you? What if your parents call you a liar?”

“Then you should keep telling, and telling.  Tell as many people as you have to until someone believes you.  Le Projet Ecoute has an entire team who help children in that very situation write a list of trusted adults they can maybe talk to.”

The girl nodded, satisfied, but I found myself dissatisfied with my own answer.  Although the creation of trusted network of adult is currently the most reliable option, I felt deeply sorry that I didn’t have a better solution – something centralized, like an emergency number to dial where adequate professional help was guaranteed on the other end. There isn't such thing in Guinea yet; just another of the many missing support systems for our country’s most vulnerable people.

Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, and Teenage Pregnancy

The conversations about teenage pregnancy amidst the young people in attendance were, by far, the most animated and enlightening. The girls wanted to talk, to learn, and to pepper my team of women under 30 with questions.

On the far wall of the exhibition was a statistic, with ten figurines underneath, not unlike the rape culture exhibit. Each figurine looked like a girl and all but one carried a heart on her chest. The misfit figurine carried two.

Above them, a painted sign decried: “In Guinea, 1 girl out of 10 has a baby before the age of 15.”

I asked the girls what they thought of that.

Sally, 18, spoke first.  She referred to a quote that she had read by the Senegalese author Mariama Bâ; the author had spoken about what she called the materialistic aggressions of the society in Africa.  Materialistic aggressions, so stated the author, were a series of cumulative pressures that were pushed upon impressionable female minds by an increasingly materialistic society.  By her argument, young girls sought extreme wealth such as cars, villas, and designer clothes from a young age. Because of this, they were susceptible to exploitation by men much older than them, who, through romantic entanglement or even marriage, could support such lavish aspirations.

“I think this is mostly true,” Sally said, one hip cocked defiantly at her side, “Girls my age can easily be tempted to date older men in exchange for the latest iPhone or a nice handbag.”

Her friends murmured their agreement.

“I think it’s rare for a teenage girl to pregnant by boys, like they used to.  It still happens, of course, but I don’t think it’s as often as those who have kids with much older men.  Lots of them are already fathers.”

“Do you think that’s a happy life, being stuck raising a family with a man who needs to bribe you for your attention?”

Sally shook her head.

“Do you think you’d be ready to have a child at your age?”

The girls whooped and snickered, their cynicism a collective breath of fresh air.  We spoke at length – about how there will always be another latest phone or bag, but that our lives are so much more beautiful and multifaceted than the mere trinkets we own; that even at their age, girls had sexual and reproductive health and rights, and that they had options to prevent pregnancy if they were not yet ready to be mothers.

Sexual Abuse Against Girls

A central piece of the exhibition was a cartoon story printed on giant posters, created as collaboration between Le Projet Ecoute and the young Guinean illustrator, Kade Balde.   The cartoon told the story of two twins, aged twelve, Bocar and Halima.  In the story, the children are sexually assaulted by their neighbor, a man by the name of Mr. Dioumessi.  The story follows their shock, sadness, and uncertainty, whereupon, in the end, they tell their teacher and the predator is arrested.

Both children and adults alike were, time and time again, drawn to the posters.  What began as a lighthearted story of two children at first glance quickly turned to a complex and serious conversational topic.  Questions were murmured to adults beneath hushed breath, and answered through gritted teeth.  As part of the event, the team at Le Projet Ecoute created an intergenerational conversation space populated by 10th graders of all genders. We asked them their initial thoughts of the story, and at first, most teens merely retold the story back to us with one key difference: they omitted the fact that both the boy and the girl in the story were abused.

Determined to push beyond this discomfort, our staff asked more pointed questions.  Gradually, like pulling teeth, the students gradually began to agree that yes, this story was one of sexual assault.

“Was the little girl, Halima, the only person abused?”

“No,” the students replied, en masse.

“So what can we deduce about sexual assault?”

“That it happens to boys, too?” ventured on timid voice.

“Yes,” the entire group seemed to agree.

I asked the students if this exhibit was the first time these teenagers had ever become aware of sexual assault as a concept.

“No,” they chorused.

“It happens often,” said Assiatou, aged 15, “It even happened to a girl in my neighborhood.”

We talked then about the fictional predator, Mr. Dioumessi.  We asked the young people their opinions of him.

“Disgusting.” said one.

“But he didn’t look disgusting, did he?” said another student, “He just looked like a normal man.”

There was a long, somber moment as the students realized the simple truth of this statement.

 We asked about justice: did the predator get what he deserved?

“Yes,” the group agreed.

“He committed a crime,” added Thierno, 14.

“So did Bocar and Halima did the right thing by telling?”

Again, the students agreed.

“Would you tell if you were in their shoes?” I asked.

This question was followed by a long silence, more unpleasant than the one before.  The students glanced beneath lower lashes at each other.

Slowly, a girl named Djenabou, 15, raised her hand and shyly said, “I think I could tell my mother.  She is my confidante.”

I repeated her answer, a little bit louder, and asked my question again.

Another teenager raised their hand.  Then another.  Then another.

“How do you tell?”

“Who do you tell?”

My colleague, Rose, asked if anybody would, like Djenabou, tell their parents.

The entire group of students shook their head, saying no.

I had not expected this response, and Rose, too, seemed somewhat lost for words.  After a moment of surprise, she ploughed on to explain about support networks, ever the professional.  But as we disassembled the exhibition at the end of a long week, I thought more on why young people dared not have these frank, intergenerational conversations with adults.

Then, when I thought of all the atrocities waged on them by the adult world – child marriage, sexual assault, exploitation, violation – I wondered, for one anxious moment, if perhaps they weren’t so wrong to mistrust us after all.  As I flicked off the lights and began my journey home, I realized that in a world with such unevenly-stacked levels of power between children and adults, perhaps the responsibility lay with adults to not only make life safer for young people, but to begin the conversations that would allow them to ask for help when they needed it.

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