on the sacrifices
of a million women before me thinking
what can I do
to make this mountain taller so the women after me
can see farther
– Rupi Kaur
According to the UN Women Website, 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence, and less than 40% of these cases ever get reported. Encountering such a case of sexual violence with a young girl, Tarana Burke, an African-American activist who suffered from sexual abuse herself, said, “I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.” Burke finally did say #MeToo and took the first step by uniting and building an extended network of women who too have suffered sexual exploitation and enabling them to voice their traumas openly through a non-profit organization called Just Be Inc., and the #MeToo movement on MySpace. The movement focuses on the mantra of ‘empowerment through empathy,’ turning “victims into survivors and survivors into thrivers” through constant dialogue and the reassurance that someone, even if they are half a world away, has had the same experience.
The United Nations Secretary-General’s Bulletin, Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, defines sexual exploitation as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from sexual exploitation of another.” Sexual abuse, similarly, is defined as “the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.” In simpler terms, it is curtailing a woman’s freedom and subjecting her to a position of inferiority due to actions of a sexual nature. It can range from being cat-called on the streets, to being pinned down and raped –– it has many iterations. The recent outpouring of stories by victims using the #MeToo hashtag from places all over the world including, but not limited to, the United States, India, Vietnam, and Uganda, has proven the unfortunate uniformity of the issue. Irrespective of the country or culture, sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse exist everywhere in the world.
#MeToo in Other Languages Sounds the Same
Given the extensive global outreach of this movement, reaching 85 countries with 1.7 million tweets, I would like to highlight the key instances that marked its pinnacle in the following countries.
In the United States, sexual harassment is most prominent in the workplace. According to a 2016 EEOC comprehensive study, 25% to 85% of sexual harassment cases reported by women are in the workplace, spread across a variety of industries such as entertainment, politics, and media, among others. With several strong speeches by the likes of Meryl Streep and Viola Davis advocating for a harassment-free work environment, the #MeToo Movement sprung into action with a violent force, drawing attention to big names such as Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh, and Bill O’Reilly as possible perpetrators.
Harvey Weinstein, the former Miramax mogul, and legendary Hollywood producer, faced charges of sexual harassment and rape, filed officially by 2 women, but brought to light by numerous others including actresses Angelina Jolie, Uma Thurman, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lupita Nyong’O, among others. Weinstein’s efforts to hide his antics, through continuous threats of ending careers or forcing further assault, went in vain when he was arrested in May 2018.
Similarly, Fox News entertainer Bill O’Reilly had complaints of “verbal abuse, unwanted advances and lewd comments” levied against him by at least 6 women. His long history of sexual propositions and threats were exposed in a New York Times article, where he is said to have settled legal claims with his accusers for about $13 million over the years. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, several women have come forward to voice their experiences and despite O’Reilly’s power and President Donald Trump’s support for him, he was ousted from his job at Fox News in April of 2017.
However, perhaps the #MeToo movement’s biggest challenge was witnessed during the hearing of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. In the midst of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, a high school acquaintance- Christine Blasey Ford- accused him of sexual misconduct in the 1980s. Kavanaugh denied all charges, saying, “I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time.” With the #MeToo movement at its peak, the FBI was brought in to investigate. In spite of the allegations and ongoing controversy, Kavanaugh was confirmed by the GOP-controlled Senate and was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, while women and men alike chanted “Shame!” in the streets.
Being born and brought up in India, I have always been surrounded by the social stigma that exists around talking about any sort of sexual harassment. In a society that has long inferioritized women and given entitlement to men, sexual harassment or abuse is always considered to be the woman’s fault and blamed on factors as wide-ranging as the way she dresses, who she goes out with, what time she’s out until, or even the fact that she’s educated. The ‘blame the victim’ mentality is perpetuated even by the Ministers of Parliament through their comments on sexual assault cases. Ranked as the ‘Most Dangerous Country for Women’ by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, about 29% of women are physically and/or sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
The #MeToo movement in India gained momentum following the gang-rape of 23-year old Jyoti Singh Pandey in the capital New Delhi in 2012. Suffering massive injuries, Nirbaya (Hindi for ‘fearless’) as she became known died undergoing treatment in Singapore for injuries she sustained during the assault. The instance shook the nation with severe outrage. The perpetrators were given death sentences, and the Indian law for rape (Section 375/376 of IPC) was expanded beyond penovaginal intercourse to include voyeurism, stalking, and acid attacks. Moreover, The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 now makes it easier for survivors to seek medical help and justice. And with this, the #MeToo movement began in India. Today millions of Indian women are standing up and reporting assaults and instances of harassment on social media to the authorities. While sex crimes have not reduced overall, the strong silver lining is that they are now reported more than they once were.
About 87% of Vietnamese women are sexually harassed in public. Of these, the most vulnerable group is journalism student interns and entry-level female journalists, according to research conducted by a Swedish international media development institute, and the Hanoi-based Center for Media and Development Initiatives (MDI).
Although Vietnam has been lauded for having one of the “world’s highest female labor force participation rates, similar educational attainment for men and women, and better-than-average representation of women in its legislature,” sexual violence against women persists. The #MeToo movement began in Vietnam with a sexual assault allegation at Tuoi Tre, a major daily newspaper in Vietnam. A young intern accused her supervising editor of sexual assault, and then afterword attempted suicide. This scandal brought out thousands of female journalists on Twitter with the tags #toasoansach (clean newsroom), #ngungimlang (stop staying silent), and #MeToo. Khuat Thu Hong, founder, and director of the Institute for Social Development Studies said, “The phenomenon of sexual harassment in Vietnam is politicized in a way [that] there are a lot of efforts to silence the victims or cover up what occurred.” Consequently, Tuoi Tre denied all charges against the senior editor in a statement.
The movement has a long way to go in Vietnam, as the Vietnamese Labor Code lacks a clear definition of sexual harassment, and the country lacks clear data on the issue. However, as more women begin standing up for themselves and one another, even the most powerful culprits will be punished.
In Uganda, as in a shocking and saddening number of countries, many women are wary of telling their stories of sexual abuse. For one, many of the perpetrators are renowned businessmen, politicians, or people whose power prevents the victims from getting the justice they deserve. In many cases, evidence is destroyed, and in some, the survivors are silenced through bribery or even murder. A second factor is undoubtedly Ugandan culture. The Baganda, the largest ethnic group in Uganda have a saying, ‘ebyomunju tebitotolwa,’ which translates to ‘No woman is supposed to tell stories from their home,’ preventing women in abusive marriages to seek respite. Moreover, Onesmus Twinamasiko, a Member of the Ugandan Parliament, even gave a televised interview encouraging men to beat their wives to “discipline” them. Just like India, the ‘blame the victim’ mentality is prevalent in Uganda as well, preventing women from reporting cases.
But with the #MeToo movement spreading across the globe, many women in Uganda are refusing to be silenced and have come out with their experiences. A University student in Kampala was harassed by her professor to trade sex for grades. Similarly, a secondary school student reported that she too had been sexually harassed but “never complained about it for fear of reprisals from teachers.” Many such instances reveal the gender inequality in Uganda, and although the #MeToo movement resonated with women, it is the apathetic justice system which fails them.
Louise Burke, a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, wrote that #MeToo “exposed an epidemic of sexual assault and harassment across every corner of the world and unbottled a collective fury which can no longer be contained.” With humble roots, this movement gained rapid momentum and created a worldwide phenomenon of helping survivors of sexual abuse deal with their experiences with fearlessness, encouragement and most importantly, empathy. However, even though this movement is up and running and yielding results through changing laws, arresting and prosecuting offenders, and spreading awareness, there is still a long way to go towards changing the mindset and innate behaviors and attitudes of not just men, but women as well, that allow sexual exploitation and gender inequality to persist. This is just the first step towards learning from the sacrifices of millions of women who have gone through such trauma and hopefully creating a stable system to make the world a more equal place for women and preventing future generations from ever having to experience similar pain in the future.