Like a baton pass in the most painful relay race ever, revelations that powerful men have – presuming a right to pleasure – sexually harassed their female colleagues spread around the world.
Starting in the entertainment industry (the first allegations were against Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein), the allegations spawned the hashtag #MeToo on social media, which was used as the revelations kept coming in politics, sports, the media and even the not-for-profit sector.
The hashtag #AidToo showed that, despite noble intentions, the development and humanitarian industry is as susceptible to the abuses of power and violence that its organisations campaign against as other industries.
In this groundswell, many remarked that the African continent seemed largely silent on the topic of sexual harassment – and gender-based violence more broadly – pointing to respectability politics (the taboo of speaking out), cultural norms, shame and the digital barrier as explanations for this perceived silence.
But, that perception does not match reality.
Limited access to Twitter, for example, didn’t stop South African women from using the social media platform to proclaim that #MenAreTrash as the number of women who were presumed missing then later found dead, killed by their partners, rose.
Explaining the reality that gave birth to the hashtag, writer Rufaro Samanga said: “[Violence] is a reality to which many South African women have become accustomed in one form or the other. South Africa has the highest number of women who are murdered at the hands of their partners in the world.”
In the face of endemic levels of violence against women and girls, action is being taken in Africa. Who are the women and organisations leading the fight to end gender violence? And what can the rest of the world learn from them?
‘Cut off your hand’
Mariam Kirollos came to prominence during the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011. She is known for her work mobilising volunteers to protect women participating in the Tahrir Square demonstrations in Cairo, where she was recorded chanting in 2012: “Harassment will not do you good, try again and we’ll cut off your hand!”
The chant was less about violence and more about voice, the young Egyptian feminist says, repeating another popular chant: “A woman’s voice is not a sacrilege, it is a revolution, a revolution!”
Kirollos is a cofounder of a group called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault. Beyond protesting against a government it saw as illegitimate, they were also demonstrating against the normalisation of violence – the casual, everyday reality of assault and sexual harassment on Cairo’s streets.
But to speak of the abuse is not enough, it was important that the language of the law also change, and in Egypt, the lexicon around sexual harassment was sorely lacking for years. While Egypt’s laws were changed to define and criminalise sexual harassment in 2014, up to that point the Arabic term for sexual harassment “was often conflated with rape”, Kirollos explains.
“This conceptual and lexical opaqueness of the meaning of the term reveals the multiple layers of denial that allowed a violative behaviour to be a normative one, wildly spread, particularly with the absence of a law to explicitly define it,” she adds.
The language of the law and campaigning to change it is just as important outside the African context. In the UK, despite the anti-discrimination Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which recognises seven protected classes or groups – a year-long review of the sex discrimination law by the Fawcett Society found that “if someone is discriminated against because of more than one aspect of their identity, they are not protected by the law”.
This lack of intersectionality means the discrimination women of colour face is compounded by the challenges they face when seeking justice.
In The Gambia, anti-FGM campaigner Jaha Dukureh’s journey began with a campaign to make female genital mutilation illegal.
Attracting international media attention and the support of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Dukureh’s campaign found success in November 2015 when former Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, announced the practice would be outlawed.
Today, the campaigner is raising awareness around the pervasiveness of easy narratives around religion and violence against women that the media often resorts to. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Dukureh, who is herself an FGM survivor, said: “The biggest myth is that [FGM] is a religious obligation only practised by Muslims and poor Africans that don’t know anything.”
To counter these myths at the community level, Dukureh added: “Communities need to learn from someone they know won’t lie to them. It’s about bringing people into the community who can help us understand.
“Respect is what has been lacking for years when tackling FGM. It is important for activists to be careful with the media and not to sensationalise FGM and survivors.” We have yet to see if, as Dukureh says, the lives and stories of survivors and campaigners will be worth more than photo ops.
In Hollywood, an alliance between actresses and activists emerged with the Time’s Up campaign. While the campaign is best known for photo ops showing actresses dressed entirely in black on the red carpet, it has also launched a legal defence fund to help female victims of sexual harassment and will lobby for legislative changes that would make it harder for companies and organisations to shield or tolerate sexual predators.
On the other side of Africa, Uganda’s GBV Prevention Network has sought to have gender-based violence (GBV) recognised as a “complex and urgent form of systemic oppression against women and girls”.
While #MeToo, #HerToo and #AidToo have clawed open space for victims to be believed rather than blamed, ensuing discussions have invariably focused on individual perpetrators rather than systemic root causes.
The work of Jean Kemitare, programme manager at GBV Prevention Network, and her colleagues highlights societal challenges that extend beyond the individual. “Historically, and to date, girls and women have a subordinate status in society,” Kemitare says.
“Men are raised to believe that they are entitled to different types of privileges than women, including obedience within the home, access to sex, and control of all family matters. Almost every aspect of our society – including families, schools, religious institutions, media and the government – reinforces these roles for women and men, making violence against women seem normal and acceptable.”
Recognising as pervasive the notion that boys are better than girls (see the UK’s recent debate about the gender pay gap) and that it is reinforced in all societies – from advertising to the gender makeup of company boards – underlines that there will be no freedom from sexual harassment without confronting the patriarchy.
African feminists know this well, are working to achieve it in their societies and are speaking on these issues in local, regional and global spaces.
Conversations are also happening online, where the hashtags #Afrifem and #FeministSparks, among others, provide insight into African feminists’ work and world views. It is these voices that need to come to the fore in global discussions.