More than 600 victims of child sexual abuse and violence will gather with their families at the Vatican for "healing prayers" on Friday.
The United Nations has declared it as World Day for the Prevention of Healing from Child Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Violence.
Fatima Bio, Sierra Leone's first lady, who introduced the UN resolution, will be in Rome to observe the day that will annually train the spotlight on the sexual exploitation of children and the need to bring those accused to justice.
“It’s also about a healing process. The resolution itself is not only about having a day but about using that day to let child rape victims know that they are not in this on their own,” Ms Bio said in an interview with The National in Dubai before leaving for Rome.
“The world will know that on this day we congregate and we must listen and hear the cries of survivors so it can translate into more action against this heinous crime.”
An outspoken advocate for child and women’s rights in her own country, Ms Bio was approached by a survivor’s family to champion the cause and stress the need for prevention.
Hope for survivors
Sponsored by Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the UN resolution was co-sponsored by more than 110 nations and adopted on November 7.
It recommends education about the effects on children, the need to prevent exploitation offline and online and for survivors to have access to justice, eliminate stigma, affirm their dignity and promote their rights.
The symbolism of the Vatican to commemorate the first day is deliberate, to show that the Roman Catholic Church is committed to addressing the scale of child sexual abuse by priests.
Pope Francis has expressed shame about sexual abuse by the clergy and promised that the “ugly habit” of covering up cases would change.
“When people talk about rape, you think of girls. But the story is darker in the church, because they were supposed to protect children,” Ms Bio said.
“We are going to congregate at the Vatican because of what happened in the church and how it affected young boys. It is also the Catholic Church saying ‘enough is enough’ and that they support this.
“It was the Church that was the backbone and pushed the project since I got involved and I’m going as a Muslim woman to the Vatican to acknowledge this.”
She said prayer was a key part of the first commemorative day.
“We hope the healing prayer will give hope to survivors flying into the Vatican,” she said.
“The 600 people will be survivors, families and people within the church.
“Being a rape victim you don’t get closure. This day, we hope, is the beginning.”
Ms Bio also credited the resolution to Jennifer Wortham, a US resident whose two younger brothers were molested by their parish priest more than 30 years ago.
Ms Wortham appealed to her to raise the issue at the UN, was with her when the resolution was first presented in September and will be in Rome for the prayers.
Justice for survivors
A key aspect of the campaign is access to justice so survivors and their families can rely on support when they take their battle to court.
“Victims have to find money to pay for their court cases and transport,” Ms Bio said.
“They should not be victimised again. This burden should be taken up by governments who can set up a mechanism to support victims.”
She also spoke out against the culture of silence about child abuse in Africa.
The President of Sierra Leone, her husband Julius Bio, had declared a national emergency in 2019 over the rape of a five-year-old girl who later died of her injuries.
He said 70 per cent of the survivors of sexual assault were under the age of 15 and that hundreds of cases of rape and assault were reported every day in the West African nation.
Ms Bio has built a network of female lawyers who voluntarily take on sexual assault cases.
“We hope all countries will ease the pain of these children because this is a destroyer of homes,” she said.
“When you talk to victims, to their family, you see the anger, the pain in their faces.
“This violates your space and body, takes away your dignity without your permission. This is why we want victims to be able to talk and governments to prioritise this.”