I believe my sufferings have empowered me to develop the strongest soul. Because of that, I am determined to live my life for others whose lives are seared with scars. I am grateful to God for having a second chance in life and I will live every day like it’s my last. It’s so important for me to speak on behalf of children, refugees and women because I know and feel their pain in my heart.
Aminata Conteh-Biger has become a voice for the voiceless. Calmly, quietly, she speaks of the most appalling crimes committed against her in Freetown before she became the first refugee from Sierra Leone to arrive in Australia. By sharing her story, she facilitates a greater understanding of the suffering of many female refugees and highlights the culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence in conflict zones.
In January 1999 Aminata was living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, when rebel forces known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched a brutal attack. For three weeks, the rebels systematically murdered, mutilated and raped civilians in an outbreak of unprecedented violence. Eighteen-year-old Aminata was abducted, gang-raped and held captive for months by a minor warlord, Daramy, who used her as his sex slave and also as a human shield during attacks by government forces. One night, she was taken from Daramy and again subjected to rape by one of the most violent and vicious warlords, Cold-boot. The next morning, he allowed Aminata to be traded, along with other rebel-held child prisoners, for badly-needed food and medicine for the RUF.
This transaction between the government forces and the RUF was fraught with danger. Fearful for their lives, Aminata and her fellow prisoners were forced to walk down an abandoned street, a no man’s land between the government and rebel-held positions, to secure the exchange of people for goods. This occurred without incident and the prisoners were sent to a refugee camp on the Guinean border where the living conditions were horrifying. Aminata then heard that her original captor, Daramy, was openly hunting for her. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recognised the threat to Aminata’s safety and granted her asylum in Australia.
After arriving in Australia, Aminata felt alone, overwhelmed and homesick for Africa. Gradually, however, she responded to the generous support and guidance from her kind teachers at Penhurst Public School. She was also welcomed and nurtured by the family of UNHCR board member Michael Dwyer, who became her ‘spiritual family’.
Michael Dwyer encouraged Aminata to become a volunteer, to develop a voice and to speak out about the crimes committed against her and other women in Sierra Leone. As a UNHCR ambassador for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, Aminata has spoken at schools, corporate events and many UNHCR functions about the use of rape in conflict and life as a refugee. Her advocacy was part of a movement that led to the adoption by the UN Security Council of Resolution 2106 (June 2013) , emphasising ‘more consistent and rigorous investigation and prosecution of sexual violence crimes as a central aspect of deterrence, and ultimately prevention’. It addressed the use of sexual violence as a war tactic, particularly targeting girls and women, and established the rights of victims of wartime rape to access comprehensive, non-discriminatory sexual and reproductive health services; it also acknowledged the long-term psychological damage inflicted upon these individuals.
In addition to her work with the UNHCR, Aminata was one of four refugees to act in The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a play developed by Ros Horin focusing on the deep-seated issues of gender-based violence. Seasons in Parramatta and Sydney in 2013 both sold out. The play is scheduled to debut in London in 2015.
In 2012 Aminata married Antoine Biger and was given away at her wedding ceremony in Sydney by Michael Dwyer. After giving birth to her first baby, she became aware of the stark contrast between the level of ante- and postnatal healthcare available to women in Sydney as opposed to the options available in Freetown. Sierra Leone, in fact, has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world: complications during pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death and disability among women of reproductive age. Aminata knew of women who had bled to death during childbirth right in front of a doctor – simply because they did not have enough money to pay for help.
In 2013 Aminata established the Australian Sierra Leone Foundation to improve conditions for women in her homeland and to reduce the maternal mortality rate. She continues to galvanise support from friends, colleagues, benefactors and academics with the aim of building and staffing a healthcare clinic in Freetown, a haven where pregnant women will be able to access medical support and to give birth in peace and safety.
 World Health Organisation, http://www.who.int/healthinfo/statistics/indmaternalmortality/en/, accessed 16 October 2013
 United Nations, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45253&Cr=sexual+violence&Cr1=conflict#.UplnE8QW2qF, accessed 29 November 2013