Nearly one and a half years ago when Alyssa Milano asked women to click MeToo on their social media platforms, the #MeToo movement was born. Since then millions of women have indicated through social media that they too have been victims of sexual harassment or assault.
The power of this movement has been its ability to show the world how pervasive sexual harassment is. And it’s had an effect on perpetrators. In the film industry producers and actors such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Bill Cosby all lost their jobs.
But is Africa part of this global movement against sexual violence? In her assessment of transnational activism in Africa, author Titilope Adayi, indicates that the global dimension of #MeToo has centred on the involvement of certain countries such as the US, the UK, France, India and China. There’s been virtually no mention of Africa or the Middle East.
But the visibility of #MeToo makes it easy to overlook the very powerful campaigns against sexual violence that go on in Africa. Most are happening outside the digital space.
MeToo was actually started by an African American women, Tarana Burke in 2006 - 11 years before #MeToo - to help young women deal with sexual harassment. Her campaign wasn’t on social media and didn’t become global. But it has now been tagged on to the digital campaign.
Before #MeToo there was the #EndRapeCulture campaign which was started in South Africa in 2016 by African women students. The #EndRapeCulture campaign was powerful enough to force universities in South Africa to appoint task teams to deal with the pervasive normalisation of sexual violence on campuses. But #EndRapeCulture didn’t become a global movement, even though it combined direct action (topless protests) with the digital campaign.
So why didn’t the #MeToo make big inroads into Africa?
One of the reasons for the lack of uptake is related to the racial nature of the campaign. It was started by white, wealthy women in the film industry in the US who had access to digital platforms.
Another reason #MeToo wasn’t that big in Africa is because of the very strong patriarchal culture in which women fear being stigmatised when they speak out about sexual harassment or assault. The very visibility of this kind of action makes them more vulnerable. Women are also afraid that their families may find out about the abuse. Women are therefore silenced by “cultures of respectability”.
And in many countries women are quite aware that the law won’t protect them. In a range of countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe, secondary victimisation of survivors is rife in male dominated courts, where conviction rates for rape are on average below 10 percent.
But women in many African countries have staged street protests. This enables them to avoid individualised attention, but nevertheless makes their causes visible.
South Africa has a very high incidence of gender based violence. A recent example involved the former deputy minister of education Mduduzi Manana, who beat up two women in a nightclub. He resigned from his job, and was eventually forced to relinquish his parliamentary seat, but it took a very long time.
African novelist and film maker, Tsitsi Dangarembga, from Zimbabwe laments that #MeToo has not reached Zimbabwe were sexual harassment is also rife. She herself was in an abusive relationship for nearly eight years.
In South Africa women started another campaign, #MenAreTrash, to challenge men to speak out about the epidemic of violence against women, especially intimate femicide by men killing their partners. There was a big push back by men against the campaign because some felt they were all being stigmatised.