You need Nicholas Kristof

By Dan Moshenberg

O my friends, there is no friend! If you’re an African girl in trouble, there are only two things you can rely on. Your courage … and Nicholas Kristof. At least, that’s what Kristof would have us believe.

The story Kristof tells is the story he’s told before. This time he’s in Sierra Leone. A 15-year-old girl named Fulamatu is raped by her neighbor. This happens repeatedly, and Fulamatu remains in terrified and terrorized silence. She loses weight, becomes sick. Finally, when two girls report that the pastor had tried to rape them, Fulamatu’s parents put two and two together, and asked their daughter, who reports the whole series of events. They take her to the doctor, where she is found to have gonorrhea. Fulamatu lays charges against the pastor, who flees.

That’s where Kristof comes in.

Fulamatu has the idea of having Kristof arrange, by phone, to meet with the pastor. The pastor shows up. The police arrest him. But it doesn’t end there. The pastor’s family comes to Fulamatu’s parents and begs forgiveness. The father agrees. The mother agrees. Then the mother “offers” to send Fulamatu away, to a distant village, one without a school. Then the father kicks the daughter out, but `fortunately’ Fulamatu has Kristof’s cell phone. She calls him just before the parents take the phone away. Later, Fulamatu is let, begrudgingly, back into the house, but the situation remains `fluid.’

This story is framed as part of the crisis of sexual violence, and child rape in particular, in Sierra Leone, in a delicate post-conflict zone. The only problem is that, except for the presence of celebrity witnesses, this story takes place across the United States, across Canada, across Europe. Girls are raped by family friends and by family members … everywhere. More often than not, they stay silent, sometimes forever. If they do speak, they are regularly abandoned or betrayed by surrounding adults who should care, from adult family members to police to the courts to the community and neighborhood, and beyond.

More disturbing is Kristof’s solution. He argues for US Congressional passage for the International Violence Against Women Act, but his story suggests a more important line of action. The story says, if you’re Black and a girl, in `a place like Sierra Leone’, you better have the phone number of a prominent White American Male. You need Nicholas Kristof.

That solution conveniently ignores, or erases, Sierra Leonean history. Fulamatu is indeed a courageous girl, and she is part of a history, in Sierra Leone, of courageous, hard working, truth telling, peace making girls and women. Some are in public office, like Jariatu Kamara or Mary Musa. Some are in groups that monitor public processes and empower and education women into becoming and remaining office holders, such as the 50.50 Group, a partner of WIPSEN – Africa, founded and led by Leymah Gbowee. Some of them are young women in their own movements, like Elizabeth M. Katta, of Young Voices, an organization that pushed the Sierra Leone government, in 2009, to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Some are advocates and attorneys, like Sabrina Mahtani, who work with women prisoners, to secure due process and, often, freedom. Some are businesswomen, like Admire Bio, pushing and shoving to close the gender gap … and then some. Some are village women, like Yatta Gambai, who journeyed to India to study how to bring solar energy back to the villages and now are doing just that.

Some are peacemakers, like the members of the Women’s Movement for Peace in Sierra Leone or the unnamed hundreds of Sierra Leonean women who journeyed to the Great Lakes region of the Democratic Republic of Congo to march for peace, to march for an end to violence against women. Some are women, like Hawa, struggling with a health care system that, on one hand, is free and, on the other, still doesn’t deliver, especially when it comes to pregnant women and girls. Some are women farmers, targeted by major land grabs, struggling to resist and do better than survive. Not one by one. In groups and movements.

Sierra Leone is a tough place for women and girls, maybe among the worst. But that does not mean that the courageous ones are alone, any more than anywhere else, or that they’re waiting for Nicholas Kristof’s phone number. Another narrative is possible.



Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

  1. Wow. I find your take on Fulamatu's story startlingly unfair — to Kristof, but more importantly to Fulamatu and to other victims of sexual violence in Sierra Leone and around the world.

    You write, "More disturbing is Kristof's solution," then go on to say he supports passage of the International Violence Against Women Act. Do you oppose the Act and its passage?
    Or are you talking about this vague other solution that YOU say his column "suggests"?

    Fulamatu's story reveals her courage, and I don't think the fact that Kristof is the one telling her story undermines that. She is betrayed by her own family, but takes action to save herself.

    Also, I think this story IS probably pretty unusual in the context of the US, which has a huge problem of sexual violence, but also has a powerful body of laws protecting children and a system that enforces them — not always perfectly, but does that make those laws meaningless? What does that say about the courageous women and girls in the US who demanded those laws, who stood up against the stigma of rape and child sexual abuse at great personal cost?

    Take a deep breath. Kristof doesn't seem like a guy who'd be fun to have to dinner, exactly, but don't minimize the reality of sexual violence against women and girls, ignore the lack of laws and enforcement systems to protect girl children in Africa from forced marriage, rape, and other forms of abuse, just to score points in your feud with the guy. He's not that important, and you are better than that. I hope.

  2. I actually find Kristof's essay quite unfair. Apparently the only people who can intervene in cases of rape in Sierra Leone are himself and the International Rescue Committee. Dan's list of women and women's organizations in Sierra Leone show that Kristof could have taken a completely different route with this story, and that if he was the initial intervenor in this situation, he could have connected Fulamatu with those more local groups, written about them in his column, and perhaps done some minor intervention in the "deepest darkest Africa" as "White Man's Burden" narrative that is the driver of the story he does tell.

    If he had included information about rape in the United States — the low rate of reporting, the low rate of arrest, the low rate of prosecution, and the low rate of conviction — he would then have opened up the possibility of solidarity among women in the United States and those of Sierra Leone, rather than the implied narrative that everything's fine here and a basket case there. He might have noticed that having laws on the books isn't enough — and that in no way disrespects the women and girls who courageously fought for those laws; it means that there is much, much more to be done.

    Given the passage of the "no public funding for abortion and hospitals have the right to deny women abortions" bill this week, and the repeal of domestic violence laws in Topeka, I hardly think the women of Sierra Leone should be holding their breath for feminist solidarity from the US Congress. So, yes, I think the law mentioned in the article is at best a P.R. move and pretty meaningless for women here or there. From what I can see, it's an unfunded mandate, and a piece of the national security apparatus that claims the protection of women, i.e. in Afghanistan, as part of the rationale for US intervention. I understand that Amnesty and some international women's groups do support it; that doesn't make it the most effective thing we can do to combat violence against women, including rape, in the US and Sierra Leone. It might have been interesting to hear what Fulamatu and her classmates think should be done.

  3. My take – Nicholas Kristoff is a hero hands down. Anyone who read the comments from his essay/article could see how moved many people were and their plans to take some type of action. He is being chastized for being Caucasian and American (he has no control over either). He does not come across as some superior being. Just a man who wants the world to be reminded of the horrors of sexual abuse (most of it against humans who are female). Yes it occurs all over the world. Many people are unaware and shielded from these acts.

    Would you two (Mr. Mosenburg and delioness) be happier if Nicholas was an oil barron or made millions selling cigarettes? He's telling heart-wrenching stories in the widely read NYT that bring awareness to subjects that are not pleasant to talk about. There are great and evil people everywhere in the world – and among all genders, races/ethnicities age groups, social classes, etc. He is not demonizing Africa. He is letting people know about these acts. Those who don't want to read about huge problems such as this can avoid his columns.

    Yes, he could have gone to the existing aid groups in Sierra Leone – apparently they haven't been able to stop these brutal attacks either. They may end up using his column to further their cause as it will likely make its way to them. Sexual violence occurs in the Congo, the US, Asia, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, nearly all war zones, you name it.

    My hat is off to Mr. Kristoff. No matter what, someone will criticize him. Glad he gives a damn and is a male talking about this. Men can do more to change sexual violence and gender inequality than women alone can. It will not stop without the involvement of men and women, but especially men!

  4. I don't actually think your take on this is entirely fair. Because of the history of colonialism, etc, the people tend to believe that the intervention of a white person can be more helpful than that of the authorities in place. In this case it seems to be true. Sadly it often is.
    I also believe that had Fulamatu herself managed to convince the pastor to meet with her parents herself the outcome could have been worse. Let's not forget that this is a so called 'pastor' These are people who have managed to convince their community that they have a special relationship with God and the sort of people who can convince their followers that a person is posessed and in need of a what is usually a sadistic and violent exorcism. Which church gives him his authority as a pastor?
    What's more significant for me is that this is the story of a religious leader taking advantage of his position and relying on the fact that because of this, he is more likely to be believed than his victim. Yes this is a story that happens around the world, children (not just girls) and women being raped and sexually assaulted by men (usually) who use their position as religious leaders as a cover for their crimes. Let's not forget that Catholicism is increasing more in Africa than in any other part of the world and we have a body of evidence that demonstrates that religion's concern (or lack of it) for the welfare of women and children who have been raped and sexually assaulted and that this attitude goes right to the top
    The blog writer points out that there are many local organisations that could have helped her but given where she lived, her age and so on, would she have known about them?`
    I hope that Fulamatu is able to rebuild her life and get an education. At least she had the opportunity to get help.
    I also hope that Krystof and or Mendes was able to put Fulamatu in touch with some of the local organisations and individuals mentioned in your post so that she will continue to have the help and support first given by Krystof and Mendes.

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