I am joining this conversation not just as an African woman but also as a professional in the women’s rights space. I join those that argue that in the last years we have witnessed an unprecedented political debate on issues concerning women.
Numerous articles on the subject have been striking in noting that the impact of#MeToo, #WhyIDidntReport, #TimesUp and other hashtag campaigns have had a considerable impact in the West. In part, this is because of women’s voices like those of Tarana Burke, Alyssa Milano and Dr Christine Blasey Ford. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was central to galvanizing the women’s resistance further.
The internet hashtag campaigns have also been amplified through other global campaigns like the #HearMeToo and the 16 Days of Activism, which have encouraged women, survivors, to come to the fore to speak out on their experiences in the home, workplace and other public spaces.
The #MeToo effect
In 2018, media attention was paid towards sexual abuse more than ever, demonstrating commitments by governments wishing to invest in addressing the scourge. In addition, governments and the United Nations scaled up advocacy on sexual gender-based violence, particularly sexual harassment.
This is perhaps the thrust of my passion to review these dynamics further in my own country and space.
While the campaigns expanded to Africa with minimal resistance, it seems to have generated attention to feminism, in turn confusing, irking and offending those with entrenched patriarchal values. Yet, it is comforting how our SADC region has considered sexual harassment and other lesser forms of violence as problematic.
This is perhaps the thrust of my passion to review these dynamics further in my own country and space. Strong patriarchal sentiments as evidenced on media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter persisted as the movement grew. The level of ignorance and disdain about feminism have been quite telling.
#Metoo in Africa
For experts on gender equality, the #MeToo campaign has opened a conversation that was long overdue and has put a spotlight on matters that culture has systemically ignored for centuries. It brought awareness to those that did not pay attention to issues concerning women’s bodily autonomy, consent and other issues of toxic masculinities.
BBC reports that in the USA, from October to December 2017, calls to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a US crisis hotline, rose by at least 23% compared with the same period in 2016. But these campaigns clearly face great contentions on the African continent perhaps, in part, because we have not experienced the level of public outrage and the energy that has been demonstrated in Europe and the US.
Other analysts have found that #MeToo doesn’t seem to have created the same breadth of space for public debate across Africa although media houses picked up many stories.
However, there is some noticeable impact in South Africa, where, according to the 2018 SAPS Crime Statistics Report, femicide increased by 11% over the last 2 years. The South African women’s movement has had to be instrumental in calling out rape, deemed high in the SADC region.
As if his troubles on land reforms and impending elections were not enough, in November 2018, President Ramaphosa was confronted by a victim of rape in front of conference delegates at a Conference on gender-based violence and femicide in Pretoria.
Lens on Malawi
In Malawi, there is still a way to go. Among the contributing factors in our culture has been the differentiated appreciation accorded to sexual harassment, which, in the Malawian context, may not be deemed harmful in comparison with, say, child rape.
For example, let’s take marital rape, an act not frowned upon and hardly considered a crime. Today’s Malawi would probably not pass it as a serious offence since a husband cannot be fathomed to rape his wife based on its simple characterization as a privilege that comes with marriage. Spousal consent does not count very highly here. With such a narrative, Malawian customary wisdom always discerns what could be deemed more pressing issues for women and girls.
Malawian feminist Lusungu Kalanga, co-founder of Feministing while Malawian a podcast that discusses local issues on feminism, said that #MeToo has given a united rage for all women across the globe to unite against misogyny and sexual violence. She argues that the campaigns have given (all) women the confidence to speak about violence at the hands of men even though in Africa and, especially in Malawi, women say stigma and victim-blaming continue to keep many of them silent.
But while Ms. Kalanga’s position promises some optimism on the issue, we are yet to see powerful perpetrators of violence being prosecuted even in the court of public opinion.
Our national failure to call out sexism and misogyny is deplorable as we let loose our so-called men of integrity on the street where abuse can only be assured to continue. The SADC Gender Protocol Alliance with Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights Mapping reported in December 2018 that a lot of women are being sexually abused by their pastors and church elders, yet the victims choose to keep quiet for fear of being labelled sinful.
Our national failure to call out sexism and misogyny is deplorable as we let loose our so-called men of integrity on the street where abuse can only be assured to continue.
The lack of a vibrant women’s movement in Malawi, while it is strengthening in other countries like Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, is paralyzing. Instead, UN Agencies and NGOs are left alone to conduct campaigns like #MeToo during commemorations like the International Women’s Day.
Women still face risks for speaking out
Sexual violence survivors who are brave enough to speak on their experiences have hardly emerged in Malawi, leaving NGOs to break the silence on their behalf and risking not doing a good job protecting them from reprisals. Even advocates against GBV fall short of singling out the powerful who have been caught pants down with young girls or abusing their power to take advantage of female work colleagues, domestic workers or young women in schools.
I strongly believe that #MeToo and #HearMeToo are urgently needed in our part of the world too. We must build on the gains we have already started making. In 2018, for the first time, many survivors came out to narrate their ordeals as a result of the “Ndiulula” campaign by the Ministry of Gender, Action Aid and others. Women and young girls narrated horrendous stories of sexual assault in universities and workplaces. This is the beginning of our #MeToo campaign.
In a culture where masculinity corresponds with the breadwinner role and expects educated women to be dependent on their spouses, women will continue to suffer multiple discrimination. For many women, the risk of speaking out is too high in Malawi. So far, protection mechanisms remain very weak to support survivors of violence. Also, speaking out seems to resurface pain that would rather be kept buried.
A call to action
We must try harder not to lose grip on campaigns such as #MeToo. We need more voices and more actions to follow this through as others. Malawian employers must join the bandwagon and likewise consider how best to create a positive workplace culture as well as understand the pervasive nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. We must interrogate the culture that shields the abuse of power to ably prosecute cases of such crimes. We must relentlessly rally our voices to obtain proper investigations, and hashtag campaigns have to be adapted to allow those that have no internet to participate in the conversation.
This conversation needs the government as its champion and coordinator, which must commit to protect survivors and lead in shaping the narrative so that both survivors and other advocates are incentivized to be central to campaigns.
The goal of such campaigns must not be to threaten punishment but to bring change in attitudes and behaviours. This will help to make sure there are no more laxity, impunity and social tolerance towards this shameful vice that leaves half of the population behind.
*This article was made possible in collaboration with Tiunike, an online magazine for discussing politics, culture and development in Malawi.