Where is Africa's #MeToo Moment?
The #MeToo movement has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, from our social media accounts, television programmes and workplaces to our everyday conversations. And quite rightly so. The movement brings much needed attention to sexual harassment and assaults, allows women to claim back power and holds men accountable for their actions. However, there continues to be a disconnect between the Western idea of #MeToo and its influence in Africa.
Normally I try to avoid generalising and talking about Africa as if it’s a country; it’s not. It’s an expansive continent with contrasting cultures, traditions, histories and populations. However, it is undeniable that the #MeToo movement has had little impact across the continent, with visible trends of sexual violence across borders and little being done about sexual assaults. In South Africa, no high profile perpetrators of sexual misconduct have been fired after women came out to report their abuse. Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, 51% of women in Africa accept domestic violence and 65.6% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa have experienced domestic abuse. Gender-based violence is therefore widespread across the continent. Some cultural traditions tolerate and legitimize violence against women; the Huffington Post reports that “wife-beating is accepted in many African countries, and only 21 African countries have laws which prevent such practices”. Although the #MeToo campaign acts as a challenge against the taboo of admitting sexual abuse in Africa, there is no support system for the women who come out to tell their stories. Violent practices continue to be entrenched in many societies, from the Hyena practice in southern Malawi to the widespread practice of FGC. How can we expect women in Africa to use the #MeToo movement if there is nothing in place to protect them from the repercussions of speaking out?
Reuters reports the experience of one 39-year old woman who described the harassment she was victim to while working as a nurse. She writes:
“Sexual harassment is so endemic in society that it is almost a right for men in Nigeria. It is almost impossible, in fact, unimaginable for a woman to report such cases. Culturally, the woman is ostracised and will not be married”.
Many African societies have embraced a blame mentality that points the finger at the woman rather than the man. In historically misogynistic cultures, older women are more accustomed to assault and abuse, refusing to speak out about their experiences, or simply assuming that sexual harassment and assault is the norm. There is a massive lack in support systems for women who report sexual assault or violence, so using a hashtag isn’t going to change anything as long as men aren’t being held accountable for their abuse. You can’t simply import a Western movement and expect it to take off in a region that has completely different socioeconomic and justice structures. How will #MeToo help young girls in remote villages? Or women with no access to internet, or television? Or women dependent on the UN peacekeepers or NGO workers who abuse them? Africa is in need of its own #MeToo movement that challenges violent practices against women and holds men accountable for their violent behaviours. The cost of speaking up is too high for many women, who don’t see any benefit in reporting their abuse. The #MeToo campaign is about empowering women and giving them a voice, but it is failing millions of women who don’t have access to any kind of platform. Afterall, the proportion of women in Africa using the internet is 25% lower than that of men.
However, Africa continues to build its own #MeToo movement through community based campaigns that challenge misogyny and actively educate women and men about women’s rights. These campaigns help survivors of abuse to tell their stories in a safe environment while providing a support system once they’ve reported their experiences of sexual violence. Here are just a few examples of the movements and organisations fighting to end sexual harassment and abuse in Sub-Saharan Africa:
Africa’s #MeToo moment may not come in the form of social media campaigns, but rather through grassroots movements and women’s empowerment at a community level. As more women speak up in their communities, sexual abuse will no longer be seen as a taboo topic for women to discuss, and women won’t be afraid to take a stand against sexual violence.
Article by Chanju Mwanza