African Women Weigh the Costs of the #MeToo Movement

Darren Harvey, Researcher, Africa Program

from the CSW62 Side Event, African Women’s Decade: Stepping Up Action for & with Rural Women to 2020. -UN Women/Ryan Brown
from the CSW62 Side Event, African Women’s Decade: Stepping Up Action for & with Rural Women to 2020. -UN Women/Ryan Brown
from the CSW62 Side Event, African Women’s Decade: Stepping Up Action for & with Rural Women to 2020. Held in the Ex-Press Bar at UN Headquarters on 15 March 2018. -UN Women/Ryan Brown

Ghanaian feminist activist, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah said, “the reasons why women aren’t motivated to speak up…is because the cost of doing so is too high…when it brings no justice.” This may help explain why the #MeToo movement hasn’t had the same viral reach in African countries as it did in the US.

There are many forms of violence perpetrated against women, but intimate-partner sexual violence and non-partner sexual violence represent a large proportion of the brutality experienced globally. A 2013 WHO report on “Global and Regional Estimates of Violence Against Women” shows the proportion of African women, over the age of 15, reporting sexual violence from either a partner or non-partner is roughly 45.6 percent.

The “MeToo” movement was initiated by Tarana Burke, an African American activist, in 2006 as a grassroots effort to assist victims of sexual violence in marginalized communities. It gained global popularity in 2017 following the widespread allegations of sexual misconduct in Hollywood. Though many African women joined the global #MeToo campaign, it didn’t seem to have the same reach on social media.

African women have long demanded gender equality in their own countries and within social movements. Recent examples include the creation of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace Campaign in 2003 that worked to end the Liberian Civil War, exposing the burden of violence women carry during times of conflict and the “She Decides Day” in Malawi this year to protest against sexual violence.

In 2019, activists in northern Nigeria created #ArewaMeToo, an adaptation of the global campaign, but were immediately repressed as the Sultan of Sokoto State banned all activities of the movement. Sadiya Taheer, a women’s rights activist, recounted her experience of being beaten by police and subjected to a smear campaign regarding her alleged sexual identity. Amnesty International demanded Nigerian authorities release the #ArewaMeToo leader, Maryam Aiwasu and considered her arrest a tactic to intimidate women from seeking justice for victims of sexual violence.

Tunisia’s movement, #EnaZeda, Tunisian Arabic for #MeToo, suffered a blow to morale as politician Zouheir Makhlouf won a seat in the national parliament while under investigation for sexual harassment. The election to parliament might provide him immunity against criminal prosecution (though the constitution suggests otherwise). Countless individual examples of women fighting to raise awareness of sexual assault and harassment exist across the African continent; from a former Gambian beauty queen accusing a former president of rape, to undercover journalists capturing video proof at the University of Ghana of sexual harassment from lecturers, to a Makerere University student in Uganda publicly recounting the sexual assault she suffered by a university administrator.

When we analyze the #MeToo movement in the U.S. and African contexts, we can see why its reach wasn’t as extensive. Much of the #MeToo movement’s strength was in its use of social media as a vehicle for reaching the largest possible audience. That reach is, however, limited in regions lacking internet access. A UN specialized agency, the Information Technology Union (ITU), shows the disparity of internet access between countries in 2017. In some of the most economically developed countries, internet access reached 94% of the youth population (15–24) as opposed to 67% in countries with weaker economies and as low as 30% in the remaining countries (which includes many Africa nations).

Though the social media-driven part of the #MeToo movement reached the continent, it had limited reach outside of the more technologically developed urban areas. Moreover, there are also glaring gender disparities in Africa where men have much higher rates of internet access than women. The Mobile Gender Gap Report for 2020 shows that women have 37% less mobile internet use than men in Sub-Saharan Africa.

When African women weigh the costs of participating in #MeToo, they do so while considering the complexity of their local and regional contexts. There is no copy and paste formula to address the issues faced by civil society in different parts of the world. There are only lessons learned from similar injustices. What is necessary are country specific approaches to addressing women’s rights in Africa that incorporate local civil society groups and build international solidarity.

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The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement

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