Fear. The only word I can find to describe my emotions that day was an absolute and chilling fear. Staring across the clear bullet proof glass, it seemed as if the only two people sitting in the packed courtroom was Charles Taylor and I. My eyes gazed to his and I saw an absolute cynical yet calm reaction as the judge delivered the anticipated fifty year sentence. That historical moment was life-changing for me as it created the vision for protecting women’s rights in Africa and around the globe.

The summer of 2012 was full of anticipation and expectations. During the last semester of my junior year in college, I was religiously planning my study abroad trip to Brazil. After running into some issues with financial aid, I had to indefinitely cancel the trip. Feeling disappointed, I accepted that perhaps the summer I had envisioned for myself would not take place. I reluctantly withdrew my application to Brazil’s study abroad program. Little did I know at that time, life had very different plans for me. Three days later I received a very unique invitation. The invitation came from one of my former professors and like so many years in the past, he was teaching his popular summer course on ‘International Human Rights Tribunal’ in the Netherlands. One of the features of the four week intensive course was a chance to witness the sentencing hearing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Through a generous grant from my college, I was fortunate enough to attend the program and witness this historical event.

From 1989 to 1997, Taylor was the leader of the National Patriotic Front (NPFL), a rebel group that fought to overthrow the government of Samuel Doe. After the assassination of Doe, Taylor became the democratic President of Liberia until 2003, when he was indicted by the Special Court of Sierra Leone for involvement in war crimes including rape, looting, physical violence, forced labor, enslavement, and acts of terrorism. There was much interest in the case, in large part because Taylor was first given asylum in Nigeria before finally being extradited. Secondly, the trial was critical for the study of individual criminal responsibility for heads of states; Taylor was the first African head of state to be tried by an international court since the Nuremburg Tribunal.

I remember distinctively sitting in my chair pressing onto my seat as Judge Lussick recounted the horrific nature of Taylor’s crimes, especially the ones committed against women in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Witness accounts told stories of rape against women, oftentimes involving the daughters of these women to watch in agony. The fear that took over my entire being that day began as the judge told the story of a woman who was walking through a checkpoint when she was stopped by members of Taylor’s rebel group. The men saw that the young woman was pregnant and began to antagonize her, and finally pulled out a knife and sliced her belly to find out the sex of the child. I could not stop the tears that were flowing from my eyes. In a press release Prosecutor Brenda Hollis stated: “Victims were savagely and repeatedly raped, and were then used as sex slaves, handed from owner to owner. The emotional and physical trauma suffered by these victims will continue for a lifetime.”

Something happened to me in the Netherlands. I knew I would never be the same. These are real stories that deserve national and global attention. These are my sisters who have experienced this violence and injustice. It seems unfathomable to me that I should keep still and watch as these atrocities continue. I discovered my purpose. My freedom means nothing if the freedoms of other women are consistently jeopardized.

A year after graduating from college, I am living my passion and pursuing true change every day. I no longer entertain the fear that I had that day as I sat in that courtroom, instead I work to create a sense of empowerment for women in Africa and around the world who are fighting for their rights to have greater access to education, healthcare, and employment. Alongside two other phenomenal women, Eliana Ruvalcaba and Shawnese Morris, this year we are launching “Africa’s Women of Valor,” a non-profit organization dedicated to ending sexual violence and bringing attention to this very pressing and critical issue that affects millions of women on the African continent. The cries, pain, and stories of our sisters also belong to us and I will continue to put forth my best efforts to make this world a better place for women everywhere.

By: Marleny DaRosa