It seems that Africa’s women have missed the chance to add their voices to the global phenomenon that the #MeToo moment became in 2018. Their relative silence is both a lesson in the movement’s failure to become a truly inclusive network and a reminder of where power resides in patriarchal societies.
Through millions of tweets, the #MeToo movement created a safe space for women to come forward about the sexual harassment and sexual violence they had experienced. Since 2017, their collective voices and support brought down big Hollywood names, shook America’s elite media circles, and forced other industries to take a closer look at how the women within their ranks were treated.
In just over a year, #MeToohas become a seminal moment in feminism. And yet, its current manifestation threatens to overlook the women this movement was started for. Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement in 2006, as a way for black and low-income American women in particular to discuss sexual violence. She wanted to create a network and community of survivors and their allies, creating a curriculum to guide their advocacy, while searching for resources to support this program.
But it was only when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the hashtag more than a decade later that it become the phenomenon the world knows now. It was meant as a personal gesture that quickly grew into a global movement, by social media mapping anyway. The idea was that if each woman who had experienced sexual harassment just tweeted the hashtag, the world would begin to understand the magnitude of the problem.
Now, in this form, the organization has international impact, creating the links that Burke first envisioned. While not initially connected to its originator, Milano acknowledged Burke and still works with her. Burke remains at the helm of the movement that has raised her own profile, and uses the accompanying accolades to spotlight the women of color for whom this movement was created.
And yet, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the reason the movement in its current form gained such momentum was because it was driven by mainly white, wealthy women who already had access to the platform and power needed. For all its victories, #MeToo has exposed divisions within the feminist movement.
Initially, the division was simultaneously ideological and generational, but then it became clear that women of color and lower-income women were being left out of the conversation. To its credit the #MeToo movement has tried to emphasize intersectionality—how social structures affect the different sections of one’s identity, like race and gender—but because it is a movement that requires women to come forward on a public platform, it demands a certain amount of power on the part of its participants.
This is a power the majority of African women and others outside of the US simply don’t have. And yet, India offered a glimmer of hope. Using the same hashtag, Indian women in particular were able to mobilize against misogyny in Bollywood, the media and the tech industry. Still, in India the movement carried the same burdens. India, like much of Africa, is an unequal society in which parts of the country resemble the West’s progress, while impoverished and isolated women continue to suffer. Africa’s attempts at a MeToo moment were similarly stop-start and privileged.
Last year, before #MeToo took off, there seemed to be the beginning of a reckoning, as Kenya’s iconic tech company Ushahidi had to deal with sexual harassment claims head on. Even as the #MeToo wave grew, Kenya’s reckoning did not move beyond this relatively new industry, illustrating how entrenched patriarchy is in other sectors of society.
South Africa, Africa’s most advanced economy, tried to keep up with the international #MeToo trend, but like the US it privileged the voices of the wealthy. And when some women came forward to expose sexual harassment in corporate South Africa, some organizations chose to protect the perpetrators. Internal investigations and industry-specific protests did little to change office culture in a country where women and men have reported high levels of sexual harassment in the workplace.
If anything, sex scandals continued to be used by factions within the ruling party to attack the political careers of powerful men, with women as collateral damage. As the most recent sexual harassment allegations in the African National Congress show, the scandals did little to change the culture in the party that decides South Africa’s policies.
And yet, as was the case with Rwandan independent presidential candidate Diane Rwigara, sexual harassment is an effective tool in trying to end the career of a female politician. Weeks after Rwigara announced her intention to run against president Paul Kagame in last year’s election, nude photos of her were leaked and seen across the region. When that didn’t deter her, the state charged the 37-year old businesswoman with fraud, barring her from contesting.
Nigerian academia is a microcosm for how sexual harassment falls through the social cracks, with perpetrators protected by their prestige. The recent conviction of a professor became a national story, and an example that not enough is done to protect women on and off campus. Still, even these are examples of how gender discrimination affects privileged women, with much less attention given to lower-income women.
African women and activists were clearly inspired by the US movement. In Senegal, where speaking out about abuse is discouraged and women are hushed by social requirements of respectability and feminine patience, two young women started #Nopiwouma. Meaning “I will not shut up” in Wolof, the hashtag goes further by creating an anonymous Google form that allows them to share their experiences. The power to be heard has inspired other women to start networks and hashtags of their own, like #Doyna (meaning “That’s enough) to challenge Senegal’s silence on gender-based violence and harassment.
Women’s experiences across the continent are diverse and creating a comprehensive cross-continental picture is impossible, but the manner in which the African Union handled its own #MeToo moment shows just how low the standard is. In January 2018, women staffers appealed to senior officials to end gender discrimination in the AU. The matter was practically ignored until it reached the media in May. When it was finally dealt with, the AU found that the organization’s most vulnerable, idealistic young interns and volunteers hoping for permanent work were targeted, but little could be done to protect them.
While there is still much work to do across Africa, much already has been done. In the last decade, a number of African states have begun passing legislation to protect women against gendered injustices like child marriage and domestic violence. Still, these new laws are only the start: the World Economic Forum found that it will take 135 years to close the gender gap in sub-Saharan Africa, mainly due to a lack of economic and political empowerment.
The attempts at recreating the #MeToo movement here, and the disappointing policy responses illustrate that even when African women try to speak up, societal pressures drown out their voices. Autonomous, empowered forums for women, like #MeToo, can speed up that process, but those movements need to be inclusive.
Despite criticism against it, the #MeToo movement is a much-needed moment in women’s history and feminism. However, like previous waves that reverberated around the world, from the early 20th century Suffrage Movement to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, it also threatens to leave behind women of color and the poor, while privileging the experiences of usually white women. Reaching out across class, race and even geographic divides could make this a truly global movement.
African women are facing varying scales of discrimination all at once—from rape as a weapon of war in the hinterlands of some countries to jobs for sex within the urban skyscrapers. No single movement can solve all of these myriad challenges, but #MeToo can start by including their experiences and empowering women in these environments to speak up. It should apply the same principle to the women left behind everywhere.
If it seems like a lot to ask, just look at how much the movement has achieved since Milano’s October 2017 tweet. Any movement that wants to protect women should make an extra effort to listen to the women who are too afraid to speak up.