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#metoo in Africa

While Africa leads the world in the number of women appointed to important positions in government, reality for most women, outside the rarefied atmosphere of high-level politics and business, remains entrenched in old habits, especially when it comes to violence. Can the #MeToo movement which has revolutionised gender discourse in the West also sweep across the continent? Tom Collins discusses.

When, late last year, victims of sexual abuse began to speak out against former Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, the events set in motion a movement which empowered women across the globe as they vocalised and decried their shared experiences. Almost one year on, the momentum looks set to have irreversibly progressed the gender debate in Western Europe and North America, but the many issues around equality in Africa remain.

On the one hand, the continent is witnessing a highlevel empowerment push with governments and leading businesses opening their doors to more women. On the other, strict gender roles elsewhere in society continue to be accompanied by not uncommon cases of gender-based violence.

Positions of power

The recent appointment of Sahle-Work Zwede as Ethiopia’s President follows on from a string of African women reaching top administrative positions, including the former Presidents of both Mauritius and Liberia. Africa, in fact, scores relatively well when it comes to a global comparison of gender equality in politics.

As a case in point, Rwanda leads the rest of the world, with women accounting for a staggering 61.2% of its legislators. This is over double the minimum ‘critical mass’ figure needed for women to achieve meaningful influence within an administrative system, which stands at 33%.

Although the continent as a whole scores below Rwanda, Sub-Saharan Africa convincingly trumps Asia, Arabia and the Pacific Islands with an average of 23.5% of women in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. These achievements have been spurred on by top-level engagement from multilateral organisations like the UN and AU. Similarly, most humanitarian bodies, for instance the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have marked gender as a top priority.

Nonetheless progress can be slow. Kenya, for example, adopted a new constitution in 2010, which legislated for the ‘critical mass’ by stipulating that no more than two-thirds of any appointed or elected body can be of the same gender. Yet eight years later and only 47 of 290 elected seats are held by women. “Like many other countries, patriarchal underpinnings still undermine the prospects of women in political leadership,” concedes Nancy Barasa, former Deputy Chief Justice of Kenya, who worked on drafting the constitution.

Overall, however, the continent has identified the lack of women in administrative structures and a variety of stakeholders are working towards a solution. While these efforts should be applauded, critics argue that the sanguine conversations echoing around the board meetings and conference halls of large institutions may in fact mask a deeper and more stubborn reality.

Trickle-down?

In stark contrast to Zwede’s ascension in Ethiopia, World Bank data from 2016 shows that 34.7% of Ethiopian women believe a husband is justified in beating his wife when she refuses sex with him. Sadly, this is below the continent’s average, with the same data showing that 51% of African women report that being beaten by their husbands is justified if they either go out without permission, neglect the children, argue back, refuse to have sex, or burn the food. 

Evidently the levels of acceptance vary from country to country, ranging from 77% in Mali to 13% in Malawi. Nonetheless, the widespread acceptance of sexual violence suggests that the increased representation of successful women in public spaces is not being complemented by reductions in gender violence.

More than one in three women in Africa report having experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner or non-partner. In fact, as research has shown, gender-based violence cuts across all demographics regardless of income – meaning examples of economic or political empowerment may not necessarily translate to a change in attitudes. The rest of the world pays testament to this fact.

Agnes Odhiambo, Senior Researcher, Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, explains the disconnect between the public and private spheres. “I think there has been a lot of talk in recent years about women’s economic empowerment; [about] making sure that women get into the job market and women get into politics. But the reality on the ground is very different. You cannot mix the experiences of women in their homes and in their communities and expect them to change following a change for women in the workplace. It doesn’t trickle down,” she says.

Changing the base influences which lead men and women alike to normalise gender-based violence is therefore key to making headway. For this to happen, a change in attitude and culture is needed. Perhaps the best way this can be achieved is through grassroots movements such as the #MeToo campaign.

#MyDressMyChoice

Africa throws up a few examples of women banding together to publicly protest against sexual violence. Kenya’s #MyDressMyChoice campaign was a movement which involved large numbers of women protesting on the streets of Nairobi, after a woman was assaulted outside a bus stop for wearing a mini-skirt

Sadly, however, these kinds of protest are all too rare as women in Africa report feeling ashamed or being threatened for speaking out. When asked if #MeToo has had a knock-on effect in Africa, Odhiambo replied: “I don’t think so. Many women will be afraid to come out and say ‘me too’ because of the challenges they face and the associated stigma.”

This kind of stigma seems worlds away from the globalised spheres of politics and business but is a reality nonetheless. It is often detected during high-profile sexual violence trials and here an interesting comparison to the US can be drawn.

On the back of the #MeToo movement, Brett Kavanaugh, now Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, was tried in court for multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Importantly, the moral behaviour or sexual history of his alleged victims were not considered to have any bearing on the guilt or otherwise of the alleged perpetrator. In other words, the victims were not blamed.

This is not always the case in Africa. Currently, there are two cases across which are eliciting backlash from various groups across the continent. South Africa has recently been gripped by its first live broadcast of a rape case, involving a Nigerian pastor accused of raping one of his congregation, who was 14 years old at the time.

During the trial, the witness was subject to a lengthy and at times aggressively intimate cross-examination by the defendant’s lawyer. Outside the court, the case has sparked a social media frenzy, with many seeking to argue that it was the witness’ fault, and she has since received death threats. South Africa had the highest levels of reported rape anywhere in the world last year.

In Kenya, the murder of a young woman by a county governor – the lady’s ‘sugar daddy’ – initially led to many blaming the woman for entering into the relationship. However, as the governor was eventually remanded in custody while awaiting trial, social media activists managed to move the national conversation away from the pair’s relationship to the crime which had been committed.

“You have to look at the crime and not the person,” says Odhiambo. “We need to stop blaming victims because that kind of blaming has very bad implications for others looking to come forward.” Indeed, for a wide-reaching movement like #MeToo to take place, victims must feel confident they will be supported, both in the eyes of the law and within their communities.

While moving the continent in the right direction, Africa’s gains in gender equality in terms of business and politics should not overshadow the very real challenges the continent continues to face, or remove priority from the need to change attitudes from the ground up. 

 

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