Last year I did some script work for a friend’s documentary — the film, called “Small Small Thing,” details the struggles of a very young Liberian girl who was dealing with the troubling medical and cultural ramifications of having been raped. Further, it framed this struggle in the larger context of Liberia’s own cultural turmoil. It was a powerful story and I was very honored to have some small hand in its telling. Olivia’s on-screen presence was of a girl very animated, very active, and with a bright future ahead of her.
I’m sad to say that the girl has passed away.
As an end note to this, let this be a reminder as to why we need progressive attitudes and legislation toward rape and sexual assault lest we backslide and become a place where rape is a shame put upon the victim, not the rapist.
The press release by the filmmakers is below.
Subject of child rape documentary dies
Olivia Zinnah, 13, of Monrovia, Liberia, the subject of a documentary “Small Small Thing” produced by Take My Picture, LLC, died Dec. 20, 2012, from long-term systemic complications after being brutally raped at age 7.
The documentary, which recently has been submitted to 50 independent film festivals worldwide and will premier this spring, chronicles Olivia’s life struggles and horrific physical complications resulting from rape. Her death is a tragic conclusion to years of unsuccessful attempts at coordinating her care despite being under the wing of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s government and the United Nations.
“Olivia was brave beyond her years facing her terrible dilemma with super-human courage,” Liberian U.N. Ambassador Nathaniel Barnes said. “Perhaps her life, though short and tragic, was intended to provide us with valuable lessons.”
The documentary creators agree.
“I hope the release of ‘Small Small Thing’ will pressure the Liberian government to find Olivia’s accused rapist and bring him to trial,” said film producer/director Jessica Vale. “Olivia was Liberian, but her voice is global. How many times, in how many countries does this have to happen for people to pay attention?”
Vale discovered Olivia at JFK Memorial Hospital in January 2009 along with a visiting husband-and-wife OBGYN team from New York City – Ann Marie Beddoe and Peter Dottino. Olivia was suffering from a severe fistula, infections and malnutrition. She was gravely ill and her condition had been deteriorating for two years. Liberian surgeons initially attempted to fix the fistula but botched the surgery.
Her mother, Bindu, did not originally seek medical attention for the girl because their remote tribal village diagnosed her as a victim of “witchcraft.” After two years, Olivia was brought to JFK where Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah, head of OBGYN, determined Olivia’s injuries were a result of rape. At that time, Olivia named her cousin John as her attacker, who was in his twenties at the time of the incident.
The family and John denied the accusations, shunning Olivia and Bindu from their village, forcing them to live at the hospital.
American surgeons operated on Olivia, saving her life. They gave her a colostomy bag and determined the fistula was so severe it could not be fixed until she was 16 years old and her body had matured. Olivia and Bindu were then sent to live at a safe home for rape victims.
President Sirleaf was elected the first female President in Africa. She ran on a pro-woman platform. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work on women’s issues, yet rape is still the highest reported crime in Liberia. Approximately 80 percent of the victims are younger than 15 years old and many are as young as a few months old.
Sirleaf was made aware of Olivia’s case. Her Ministry of Gender said Sirleaf felt Olivia’s fistula should be repaired, despite U.S. surgeons’ direction otherwise. A Liberian surgeon attempted another repair, and afterward it was publicized that Olivia was improving. However, the surgery only made her injuries worse.
Olivia and Bindu were once again living at JFK Hospital. Documentary producers tried to secure Olivia passage to the U.S. The Ministry of Gender agreed to give her a VISA, but only if her U.S. surgeons could get their hospital, Mount Sinai, to agree to provide medical care. Mount Sinai denied all requests.
Olivia was living full-time under the care of Dr. Jallah. Olivia’s mother felt she could not properly care for her, and returned to her village with her other children. Olivia attended school and showed signs of physical improvement.
Another surgery was attempted to reverse the colostomy. It is unclear who did this surgery, but it was not her U.S. doctors. Bindu dropped all charges against John, the accused attacker.
Olivia returned to live with her mother in their Liberian village.
U.S. surgeon Ann Marie Beddoe is contacted by the U.N./WHO to inform her they have decided to give Olivia a VISA to the U.S. for medical care. Beddoe is told Olivia will be taken “under their wing.”
Olivia was rushed to JFK with a bowel obstruction. Dr. Jallah was unable to get approval for emergency surgery. Olivia’s condition worsened and U.S. doctors insisted Olivia receive an operation to save her life. Days later, Olivia finally undergoes a colostomy surgery, but it was too late. She died two days later at 13.
The filmmakers who created “Small Small Thing” hope sharing Olivia’s story will raise awareness that our global rape epidemic affects children as well as adults.
“Unlike so many rape victims around the world,” Offenbac said, “Olivia did not die an invisible death. I hope her fearlessness in life inspires other survivors to break their silence and speak out.”