Updated: Jan 20
This article has been written in the author's personal capacity.
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 how, in the two years between 2016 and 2018, we have witnessed 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 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 (hello, Brett Kavanaugh!) The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was probably 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 more familiar 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, which have encouraged women survivors to come to the fore to speak out on their experiences in the home, workplace and other public spaces.
In 2018, more media attention was paid towards sexual abuse more than ever in demonstrating country 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. While the campaigns expanded to Africa with minimal resistance, my rough research reveals how it has 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. As these issues dominated 2017 and 2018, strong patriarchal sentiments as evidenced on media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter persisted. I daresay the level of ignorance and disdain about feminism have been quite telling.
Among the contributing factors in our culture has been the differentiated appreciation accorded to sexual harassment, which, in our 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. I doubt today’s Malawi would pass it as a serious offense, 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, our customary wisdom always discerns what could be deemed more pressing issues for women and girls.
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. However, the #tag campaigns have brought awareness to those that did not pay attention to issues concerning women’s bodily autonomy, consent and other issues of toxic masculinities.
In my research, the BBC website (click here) 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, as hinted above, 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, one finds 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 gender-based violence and femicide conference in Pretoria.
Here at home, I sampled and asked Malawian feminist Lusungu Kalanga, co-founder of Feministing while Malawian (a podcast that discuss issues on feminism), what #MeToo means to her. For Ms. Kalanga, #MeToo has given a united rage for all women across the globe to unite against misogyny and sexual violence. She argues on 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 in the manner men like Bill Cosby were brought to justice, for example. In our country, you are more frequently likely to find that our prison system works to bring low-income men to justice (like teachers) while painting a rosy picture on men of higher ranking in society. 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, for example, that a lot of women are being sexually abused by their pastors and church elders, yet the victims (ironically) choose to keep quiet for fear of being labelled sinful.
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, Day of the Girl Child and the 16 days of Activism campaign.
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 that 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. During the 2018 16 Days campaign, for example, it was the first time here in Malawi to witness many survivors coming 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, for which, until we can aggressively sustain, we will not see much impact, especially in arresting the compounding impunity of perpetrators of sexual offences as a justice issue in Africa.
It is sad to learn that, for many women, the risk of speaking out is too high in Malawi. So far, the protection mechanism remains very weak to support survivors of violence. Also, speaking out seems to resurface pain that would rather be kept buried. And 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.
We must try harder to prevent campaigns such as #MeToo from flight. We need more voices and more actions to follow this through as others in countries like the US are doing. 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 abuse of power to ably prosecute cases of such crimes. We must relentlessly rally our voices to challenge the 2018 case where rape propagated by a police officer almost let the perpetrator go scot-free. A proper investigation is needed to bring justice. The one thing we can all agree on is that rape happened in a police station. We must call out strongly to the transferring of another officer or teacher to another station or school as a solution. Hashtag campaigns have to be adapted to allow those that have no internet to participate in the conversation.
This conversation needs government as its champion and coordinator. Development partners need to be rallied to only help amplify the call to educate and change mindsets. Although this takes time, such campaigns are catalytic can yield unprecedented change if properly and aggressively pursued. The Malawi government must commit to protecting survivors and lead in shaping the narrative so that both survivors and other advocates are incentivized to be central to campaigns.
Finally, 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 is no more laxity, impunity and social tolerance towards this shameful vice that leaves half of the population behind.
So, men and women need to have conversations around toxic masculinities to avert the danger of misconstruing such campaigns as movements for men hatred!