GCC student fights for young women’s rights in her native Africa

  • Hawa Tarawally speaks to Greenfield Community College students. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • A flash mob rally last year. Contributed photo

  • A flash mob rally last year. Contributed photo

  • Hawa Tarawally speaks to Greenfield Community College students. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz


  • Hawa Tarawally speaks to Greenfield Community College students. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/28/2017 11:22:22 PM

At 22, Hawa Tarawally, has seen more of life’s struggles than many of her fellow Greenfield Community College students could imagine.

Tarawally, now living in Montague, left her native Sierra Leone behind last November to escape government retribution for leading a campaign to end the way young girls in her west African country are treated. But she hasn’t ended her efforts to end forced marriage for young girls and other sexually related abuses in her native land.

“I have been an activist in Sierra Leone since I was 10 years old,” she says with a self-assurance that makes this defiant, outspoken young woman stand out, just as she stood out last spring at a United Nations youth summit.

Tarawally, who at age 2 suffered the death of her mother in Sierra Leone’s civil war in 1997 for allegedly supplying rebels with food, went on to live with her father in their southeastern village of Kenema Field. Yet, he was unable to care for her, she says.

Her widowed father began drinking, she says, “So nobody was really there to take care of me. … I was taking care of myself. At 4, 5 years old, I was working in the house, cleaning, (but) nobody washed me.”

Eventually, convinced that he couldn’t care for her properly, her father brought her to stay with his younger sister. “But that woman treated me like a dog,” said Tarawally. “When I was staying with her, I had a rash all over my body … I couldn’t walk straight because of the rash.”

Her father came to take her back, bringing her first to a hospital for treatment. She lived with him, her older brother and other relatives until she was 10.

Once again, she says, “Nobody was taking care of us. You take care of yourself.”

Around this time, influenced by Network Movement for Justice and Development peer educators in her school, Tarawally became aware of girls around her being initiated in female mutilation rituals and married off by their families at a young age, and also being sexualized by boys around them, often getting them pregnant or making them susceptible to HIV and AIDS.

“I decided to leave that town before I get pregnant or before I get initiated, or before my family gives my hand into marriage,” she said.

Following on the path of the peer educators, Tarawally says, “we promised to them that we would spread what we had learned … and I was raising awareness among my colleagues.”

In the aftermath of the civil war, most families that had lost members tried to rebuild by seeing that their daughters got pregnant.

“In a society that is full of child abuses,” she would tell other girls, “You have to be brave, you have to be assertive, you have to be smart. You have to know how to negotiate with people … to tell them that, ‘You know, my daddy really wants me to get married, but please give me some time. For me to get some knowledge, to understand what the world is made of.’”

“I was trying to tell them how we can benefit from education, instead of allowing our parents to really push us into getting married,” said Tarawally, who also tried to spread awareness about the risks of HIV and AIDS.

Tarawally attended workshops for girls by human rights organizations, “talking about these things. I was listening. I would not just go there to eat their food. That’s what most of us went there for. I mostly went there to get the knowledge, because by then I was the only girl in my town that was privileged to be in secondary school. All my age grades were all pregnant. So I really, really wanted to make use of the opportunity. By focusing and really getting the points and really relating this to my life. And that’s what I pretty much did.”

Often beginning for girls around age 8, female “cutting,” as female genital mutilation sometimes is called, is a ritual passage from childhood in her Mandingo ethnic group and others.

It was banned for three years during the country’s ebola crisis and has been the subject of restrictions for girls under age 18. Those laws are seldom enforced because of the political pressure of the guilds of women cutters throughout much of the country. The ritual practice, known as Bondo, continues as a powerful tradition, despite growing calls for an outright ban.

Tarawally said, “They marry girls off from 12 on. … I was really tall for my age 10, so there was potential for me to be given into marriage. The Madingo and Fula tribes actually plan marriage for you; your dad doesn’t even necessarily need to approve it. When your dad’s elder brother says ‘yes,’ the dad cannot say ‘no’.”

It was time to move on, Tarawally decided. So when her father’s younger brother came to visit from Kenema, a city of about 200,000, she told him, “Uncle, I’m going with you. You’re not going to leave me here.”

She grabbed her bag, climbed on his motorcycle and moved to the city, where she says his wife verbally abused her, and fed her burned rice before finally asking her to return to her village “where I know I will be given into marriage and will be subjected into FGM. Maybe I will get pregnant? I will never go back to that village!”

“My uncle said, ‘Well, you have to leave my house,” so at age 11 or 12, she began staying with friends, going from house to house to stay for the next year or two.

Along the way, the young teen met Ann-Marie Caulker of the National Movement for Emancipation and Progress, a coalition campaigning against harmful practices., a co-founder of Katanya Women’s Development Association (KaWDA) along with Marina Goldman of Montague, who has worked on women’s health issues in Sierra Leone on about a dozen trips since 2007.

KaWDA, created in 1996, works to empower women and children in Sierra Leone by providing access to education, skills training and support “to build a strong and resilient sociey,” according to its website.

Of Caulker, Tarwally says, “She became like a mom to me.”

The girl began living with her cousin, and being cared for by Caulker, until age 15, when she took her high-school entrance exam.

“Now my uncle told my dad that somebody has intoxicated my brain, that a woman has mixed up my brains and wants me to get pregnant and be a prostitute, and that woman is not really a good person,” she says. So her father, along with family members including her aunts and grandmother, went to Caulker and brought Tarawally to the tribal chief.

The chief ordered her returned to the custody of her family.

But her grandmother, with whom she was forced to live in Kenema, “misled me,” sending her to get something from a friend who lived in the bush, says Tarawally.

“I went there, and that’s when they initiated me in the ritual mutilation,” tying her down and blindfolding her. “I was very frightened, and very angry,” she says.

She was awakened the next morning and told that the painful cutting would have to be done again because it had been too dark the night before to do correctly.

After that, she said, “They have laid their hands on me, they really want to do things as fast as they can. They wanted to give my hand in marriage,” despite her father’s opposition. Rather than consenting to a forced marriage, the 16-year-old girl hid and escaped, relocating to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second-largest city. There, Caulker helped support her and send her to high school.

Tarawally did so well in school, and on her university entrance exam, that she was admitted to the University of Sierra Leone’s Fourahbay College — “a university that is very hard to get admitted into, especially if you’re coming from the provinces.”

Focused on political science, Tarawally was invited in her second year to a United Nations youth summit, along with students from Gambia, Kenya, from Europe, from Asia. From March to August, she got to travel around the United States, and to learn from the other students that a key would be registering the organization she’d already created back home, Every Step Counts, to help girls like herself.

“At the end of the day, I got a lot of inspiration, to go back and see how I could legally register my own foundation, and really go back to my activities on a different level this time around,” recalled Tarawally, who said she had been “scared of victimization, scared of oppression. But when I came here and saw these incredibly outstanding youths and talked with them and actually learned what they had been doing in their different countries, and how they had been successful, I decided to go back home” and work to raise awareness about female genital mutilation.

“That’s the thing nobody really wants to talk about,” she says, as an aspect of tradition that politicians use to win votes. “You can stand up for what you believe in, but … they will oppress you, either by torturing you, defaming you unlawfully, taking you to the prisons or beating you up, or just kidnapping you … and all of sudden you disappear.”

She adds, “It’s forbidden for somebody who’s been through FGM, like myself, to stand up and oppose it. You don’t do it. If you do, the law is you will be re-initiated. You will be re-cut!”

Nonetheless, with her foundation registered, Tarawally returned to activism, going into schools, to slums. Talking to parents, students.

And then to really draw attention to her message, she organized a flash mob on Nov. 12, her 22nd birthday, playing music and dancing out on the streets, with other people joining in.

“We are actually dancing in the streets, all of sudden I would just take my shirt off like this, and you see the other shirt (underneath) say, ‘Stop FGM and Child Marriage.”

Three days later, awakened by a knock at her door, she found three men ask for her downstairs with a warrant to take her to the police station. They offered no reason, telling her only that it came “from above.”

“I was so worried, because I have my dad, my brother, my stepmom, my siblings. I was so worried about them,” said Tarawally, who was detained for four days and eventually allowed to send for her brother after telling the authorities she needed her food and medicine.

Her brother related being told by one of the authorities that her detention had been “a warning shot,” and he advised Tarawally to “refrain from whatever it is that I’m doing.” She remembers saying, “‘Warning shots for what? What did I do?’ I wasn’t thinking, about what I had done, the previous days, the flash mob … I didn’t know they had access, or any connection to that. I wasn’t thinking about that!”

Then, on Nov. 24, she learned that another activist from her university had been arrested for sharing a social media post about an upcoming demonstration.

In response, Tarawally said, “I went to different colleges in (the capital city) Freetown and said, “We all need to go out in our numbers tomorrow and protest against what has happened. … Otherwise this is going to keep on happening, and a lot of young people are going to keep on being detained, or being arrested for no reason. Nobody will have the right to say whatever it is they know is wrong!”

The protest in front of the courthouse drew about 100, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper.

“In the past two years, the country’s ruling party has shown a worsening, often violent intolerance for public criticism, and with an 11-year civil war in the rear-view mirror, a culture of silence often deters would-be protesters from publicly airing their grievances,” the newspaper said. “But in the past week, (student Theresa) Mbomaya’s case has quickly evolved into a cause célèbre that, bolstered by the country’s grim economic conditions, has become the epicentre of a growing social movement calling for unobstructed freedom of expression. … Since the height of the Ebola outbreak, opposition members, protesters, activists and journalists have been jailed, beaten, teargassed or shot for publishing material or staging demonstrations deemed critical of government policy.”

Following the protest, Tarawally says she received a text message from one of the men who had detained her, with a warning: “If you know what is good for you, find somewhere to go for now. You can go to Liberia. Just go straight there for now. This place is not safe for you, for now.”

Tarawally had visited the United States a few months earlier and had no thoughts of returning so soon, even though Caulker had invited her to attend a Dec. 2 global summit in Washington, D.C., to end violence against women and girls.

“But when this happened, I said, ‘I think I have to go. I have to go to this event and’ ” — banging her knuckles on the table in front of her with each syllable for emphasis — ” ‘I might not come back.’”

So, she returned to the U.S., where she is staying with Goldman in Montague and taking classes at GCC.

At the conference, said Tarawally — who has since launched a Change.org petition to the UN to ban female genital mutilation and forced marriages — “I told everybody how they treat young people — youths and activists — in Sierra Leone and in Africa as a whole. How they suppress us. How we the youths don’t have any freedom of speech, activists don’t have rights to say the truth. They will be oppressed and suppressed by political leaders …. FGM is a global issue. So please make global laws, laws that will be able to defend and protect activists from all over the world. I told them everything, because I knew I wasn’t going back.”

Tarawally, said, “I knew here I will be able to get justice. … Keeping silent would just kill me.”

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