Early one morning, I came across the actress Eva Mendes, crying. She said that she was overwhelmed by all the girls she had met here in Sierra Leone who had been raped — and by her inability to help.
Ms. Mendes and I had just arrived here in West Africa to collaborate on a PBS documentary on some inspiring women around the world. In our first full day of reporting, we had met 3- and 4-year-old girls who had been raped.
It was heartbreaking, yet we ultimately found a hint of progress, partly because of the grit of a 15-year-girl, Fulamatu. A ninth grader and star of her class, Fulamatu dreams of going to university and becoming a bank manager.
Living right next door is Victor S. Palmer, a 41-year-old Pentecostal pastor and friend of her family, so close that Fulamatu calls him “uncle.” Yet, one day in May, Fulamatu says, the pastor threw her on his bed and raped her.
“I was scared, so I didn’t tell my parents,” Fulamatu remembered. He continued the attacks, she said, and she became sick and lost weight. Finally, after two other girls reported that the pastor had tried to rape them, her parents confronted her. Fulamatu told them that she had been repeatedly raped, and a doctor determined that she had a severe case of gonorrhea.
Fulamatu wanted to prosecute the pastor, and I watched as she made her statement to the police. She was scared and embarrassed but also determined. The police set out to arrest the pastor, but they couldn’t find him.
That’s when Fulamatu had an idea: If I, as a foreigner, called his cellphone, he might agree to meet. After concluding that it would be a mistake to let an alleged rapist go free if I could prevent it, I telephoned the pastor. I introduced myself and asked to see him that afternoon. When he showed up, the police grabbed him.
The pastor firmly denied all charges. At the police station, he told me that he had never had sex, forced or consensual, with Fulamatu or tried to rape the other girls. He could not explain why the girls would say that he had attacked them.
That evening, the neighborhood celebrated outside the police station. One girl after another came up to me and described how the pastor had been preying on girls. Fulamatu was thrilled at the prospect of justice. Impunity seemed to be eroding.
Yet progress is agonizingly slow, and the International Rescue Committee says that only one-half of 1 percent of the rapes it deals with in Sierra Leone lead to convictions. I soon saw the challenges first hand.
After Mr. Palmer was arrested, his family members came calling on Fulamatu’s family. They prostrated themselves before Fulamatu’s feet and begged forgiveness.
Under pressure, Fulamatu’s father announced that he forgave the pastor. Fulamatu’s mother told me that the family would not testify against Mr. Palmer at a trial.
The police moved on their own and released the pastor. He is now free again.
“This is very common,” Amie Kandeh of the International Rescue Committee, who battles sexual violence here, told me. She routinely sees cases dropped.
Then it got worse. Fulamatu’s father, humiliated by the furor surrounding his daughter, threatened to evict her from their house. Her mother prepared to send Fulamatu to a remote village with no school. It looked as if Fulamatu would be forced to end her studies and have her life’s hopes destroyed.
I left Fulamatu my cellphone so that she could contact me for help if necessary. That evening she phoned: Her father had kicked her out on the street. Then her parents confiscated the phone.
It’s because of girls like Fulamatu that I want Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would encourage countries like Sierra Leone to take sexual violence more seriously. And shining a light on oppression helps overcome it.
For Fulamatu, the situation is in flux. Under pressure, the family grudgingly took her back in, and the International Rescue Committee is helping her. Ms. Mendes is hoping to pay for her to go to a boarding school, where she could get an education and be safe.
There is so much in this case to shed angry tears about. Yet Fulamatu herself, while utterly humiliated, is dry-eyed and strong. She misted only when I grabbed her by the shoulders and told her that she had done nothing wrong.
It’s worth emulating her toughness and resolve as the path to change. As more girls show Fulamatu’s courage, we can some day break taboos about sexual violence and inch toward a global recognition that it is more shameful to rape than to be raped.