16 Days of Activism: From rhetoric to gains for Africa’s women and girls
he annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign commenced yesterday under the global advocacy theme, Orange the World: #HearMeToo. With the #MeToo campaign gaining important traction over the last year, especially within Hollywood, this year’s campaign seeks to expand the breadth of voices sharing and telling stories of violence and abuse internationally, and to take the campaign from a Hollywood-centric frame into other areas of women’s work and lives.
Just as this year’s campaign began, news broke of the outcome of an internal inquiry by the African Union Commission that revealed that sexual harassment within the organisation is rife. While the full report has not been published, it is understood that it contains over 40 cases of alleged unfair labour practises, sexual harassment and sexual assault, some of which implicate senior officials within the Commission. It further reveals that the category of staff most vulnerable to the abuse and harassment at the AU is short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns who by virtue of their lack of full-time tenure, and therefore power, are often the most vulnerable.
As these new developments around the AU come to focus, there are many questions to be asked about how Africa’s governance bodies and civil society will deal with these issues.
Unfortunately, the outlook thus far has not looked too promising.
Earlier this year, the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, came under increasing pressure to resign over his handling of sexual abuse allegations within the agency. In a speech to UNAIDS staff members, Sidibé is said to have clearly taken the side of his former deputy, Luiz Loures (who has since departed from the agency), and been critical of women who chose to speak out, thereby creating an environment of self-censorship and fear among other women who might have similarly spoken up. Concerns have also been raised around the 14-month-long investigation into the matter, which many consider to have taken far too long and which Sidibé is said to have interfered in.
The standard that UNAIDS, a high-level actor in the fight for equality and social justice, has set for the handling of such important issues does not instill much confidence in the way that other high profile cases, such as the current one within the AU Commission, may be handled.
However, with more such cases emerging – and a critical mass of activism developing against them – there may be a turn in the tide of how these issues are addressed and how seriously the ramifications against perpetrators are taken.
But as with the #MeToo campaign in the US, which has exposed high-level Hollywood actors and producers such as Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein in its wake, there continues to be a challenge in ensuring that a sustained grassroots campaign continues to grow to allow for #MeToo to permeate various other sectors and shine an important light on ongoing abuses in work and personal environments.
Last month, distinguished Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair, mentioned that that it was time for a #MeToo movement in Zimbabwe, where no such campaign has significantly taken off, and for Zimbabwean women – including Dangarembga herself – to share their stories of violence and survival. She also mentioned that her efforts had proved unsuccessful thus far due to a range of issues including a lack of funding opportunities for such activism, the reluctance of families to let their daughters speak out and a lack of support from civil society groups and organisations.
But the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence offer hope. If more conversations such as those already begun around the AU Commission continue on throughout the next two or so weeks, gender rights activists and feminists will have made important progress in advancing an African agenda around the #MeToo campaign and how to tackle various instances of harassment and abuse on the continent.
At the same time, several points of discussion and debate remain. For instance, how will the different events and activations over the next few weeks build into a movement that outlives the moment of sharp focus on the issue of violence against women? Also, how will coordination of efforts be ensured at not just high levels but also at more grassroots foundations; and also at national, regional and inter-regional levels? How can progress be made, during this year’s 16 Days campaign, to eradicate stereotypes about who can be violated, where and how?
In this vein, more work with organisations already addressing violence against women and girls needs to be promoted. Also, a sharp focus on forms of violence that are not always seen as such – for instance, online violence and trolling – need to be incorporated in the agenda and acknowledged as important and growing forms of violence against women. At the same time, there needs to be innovative ideas around how to grow the #HearMeToo hashtag not only online but in offline spaces as online violence and its manifestations is usually a reflection of offline realities. Finally, we need to ensure that we do not simply adopt Hollywood frames of reference for understanding what a #MeToo campaign can look like, and encompass, but localise as much as possible to indigenous and vernacular contexts.
While there have been gains for women in Africa’s political space – especially in Ethiopia – this year, it still remains very difficult for conversations about personal violence to be listened to and acted upon, moreso at the grassroots level where patriarchal silencing and socialisation work to keep women from enjoying the freedom to share and own their stories. As one Zimbabwean feminist commentator on Twitter, Buhle Moyo, put it: “There is need to subject political parties to scrutiny over sexual harassment. Often we talk about elections having been free and fair because there was no physical violence yet we know there would be cases of sexual harassment. This needs to change. Violence is violence.”
Indeed, news from the AU Commission bodes well for more talk about violence against women during this 16 Days of Activism period. But without a deeper structural analysis of how to augment the potential gains in voice and space during this period, as well as more coordinated efforts to consolidate these voices and spaces, this period may – like many other others before it – go by with much rhetoric and fewer gains for ordinary women desperately in need of hope of change.
(Main image: Ugandan prominent human rights activist and feminist Stella Nyanzi (C) reacts to police officers during a protest against the amount and handling of police investigations into murders and kidnappings of women in Kampala on 5 June 2018. – Sumy Sadurni/AFP/Getty Images)