A Gambian pageant winner has accused the country’s former president of rape as an investigation claims Yahya Jammeh systematically sexually abused young women.

Jammeh, who reluctantly stepped down in 2017 after 22 years of rule, presented himself as a deeply religious figure and an advocate of girls’ rightsand declared his small west African nation an Islamic republic.

But Toufah Jallow claims he raped her as a teenager at a religious event on the eve of Ramadan. Two other women also accused Jammeh of rape and sexual assault in interviews with Human Rights Watch and Trial International, and eight former Gambian officials said they had direct knowledge of the events. Jallow is the only one disclosing her real name.

The former winner of the prestigious Miss July 22nd beauty and scholarship pageant said she wanted to “start the conversation about something that is destroying the fabric of society” – girls carrying the burden of sexual abuse.

“I felt like if I can do that with the president of the country, it becomes somewhat easier for someone who’s dealing with a CEO, with a boss, with a schoolteacher or with an uncle, because the highest level is being exposed,” she told the Guardian.

For years Jallow had watched the prestigious July 22nd pageant – named for the date Jammeh seized power – on television. When she was crowned winner in 2014, she thought a scholarship would soon follow.

Instead, she said, Jimbee Jammeh, the president’s cousin and a State House protocol officer, began calling her to ask about a drama project she had to submit after winning the pageant. Soon she found herself being taken to Jammeh’s private residence.

“Fula girl,” he greeted her, using traditional teasing between their ethnic groups, Jallow recalled. He was wearing a shirt and trousers, not his usual bulky robes. He gave her a fatherly hug and switched on the Animal Planet channel.

“He was watching this lion hunt his prey, talking about it,” she said. “He said his uncles were hunters and that hunters actually just mimic what lions do, and they have to take their time.” He talked until midnight, she said, going through her proposal and reminiscing about his childhood. Then she left.

After several more meetings, Jammeh arranged for Jallow’s mother’s house to get a water supply, and he sent gifts of furniture and offered Jallow a job like Jimbee’s.

Then one night at dinner, she said, he allegedly told her: “I want to marry you, you know. When can I send people to go see your parents?”

She said no, blocked Jimbee’s number and decided to have nothing more to do with Jammeh. But the night before Ramadan, Jimbee got through on a private number and told her to come to a Qur’anic recitation ceremony at State House along with previous pageant winners. She felt unable to decline.

Jimbee allegedly engineered it so that they were in a room alone and then left. Jammeh walked in. “This time it wasn’t the fatherly ‘hey Fula girl’. His eyes were so red and he was so angry,” she claimed. “He said to me: ‘Who do you think you are?’ His ego was bruised, seriously.”

Shouting that he could get any woman he wanted, he allegedly dragged her into the next room. “He said to me: ‘This could have gone way, way, much better if you had just gone along. But it seems like this is how you want it,’” she claimed.

“The echo of the reading of the Qur’an outside was loud; I could hear every word of it when I was in that room. He pushed me so I was kneeling on the floor. And he pulled his genitals out and rubbed it on my face, saying things like ‘let’s see if you’re a virgin’, and I was screaming,” she alleged.

“He said ‘it’s not going to kill you’. Then he took [a syringe] from his pocket and injected me right here,” she claimed, pulling up her sleeve to show a scar. After that, Jallow said, she could not hear her own screams. She claimed he pulled off her leggings and underwear and anally raped her.

She alleges she passed out, and when she woke up at 2am he was sitting on the couch watching her. He told her: “Get out.”

Jallow decided she had to escape. She put on a niqab and went to the market where she gave the men following her the slip, she said. She crossed the Gambia River in a fisherman’s boat, begged a truck driver to smuggle her across the Senegalese border and slept in a Dakar bus station until she could get help, then sought asylum in Canada.

What allegedly happened to Jallow was not a one-off but appears to be part of “a state-sponsored system to get women into his bed,” said Reed Brody, a lawyer at Human Rights Watch who along with Marion Volkmann-Brandau has been building a case against Jammeh that covers the alleged massacre of migrants and his bogus HIV “cure” programme.

Jammeh allegedly lavished gifts on the impoverished family of “Anta”, a pseudonym for one of the other women who has accused him of sexual assault. She claims she refused his advances until he threatened to take everything away from the family. She further alleges that a soldier was sent with Jimbee to force her to move to State House to be on call for sex whenever he wanted it.

The third woman, referred to as Bintu, claims she was groomed and then told to undress in front of Jammeh and Jimbee, and when he started to touch her she started crying. She was told to leave and her scholarship was cancelled.

Jammeh is hiding out in Equatorial Guinea along with Jimbee, protected by the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang.

Now a keen boxer who works in sales but still has the acting dream, Jallow is preparing to travel to the Gambia to tell her story there. On her way to a boxing class in Dakar, Senegal, on Tuesday night, shocked messages of support trickled in from friends hearing about her case. “It’s hard. But what happened is harder,” she said.

Her goals are clear: she wants her story to make a difference and, if the case comes to trial, she wants sexual assault to be treated as seriously as murder, kidnapping and torture, of which Jammeh is also accused. “I want it to be part of whatever brings him down.”

Efforts to obtain contact details for Jammeh in order to put the allegations to him were unsuccessful.

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