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Let’s make 2019 the year of African women

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With Jenna Cocullo:

The year 2018 was said to be the year of the woman. At the end of 2017 actresses brought down big Hollywood names in America. It started with director Harvey Weinstein who was outed for using his position as a powerful man to force women into sexual acts if they ever wanted to work in the industry. Since that story broke the hashtag #metoo has circulated on Twitter where other women came forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment and take down other powerful men in industries all over.

In Sweden the hashtag #Teknisktfel exposing men in the tech industry who would send porn to female colleagues taking calls at an information technology company. Brazil’s labour ministry began a campign to raise awareness about assault in the workforce and encourage women to come forward. In Japan a movement began to make sexual harassment a crime. Muslim women in the Middle East began #MosqueMeToo to speak out against sexual abuse that occurs during the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. These are just a few places where awareness to sexual harassment took off in 2018.

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A few months ago, in October, I wrote about the effect #metoo had one year later across the globe. But I made a grave error. I had assumed that it had reached far and wide until a reader of this column emailed me to point out that it had skipped Africa. I did research and found this to be true.

Most African women have stayed silent in the wake of the #metoo movement showing just how deep patriarchy runs in society. Of course many laws have passed in African countries calling for equal pay, gender parity in politics, and laws that protect women against assault. But as we know, strong cultural and religious taboos prevent these laws from being realized especially in rural areas where sexual harassment remains rampant.

Movements like #metoo allow women to speak out against the power structures that oppress them and give magnitude to the problem when millions of women are coming forward with their stories of sexual assault but they also highlight the divide in the feminist movement. It is one that benefits privileged women, mainly from wealthy countries where they have a platform to have their voices heard. With so many people in Africa living in areas with no proper access to internet their voices are lost. But these are the voices that need to be heard the most.

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Maybe this form is not the best way for women in Africa to be heard where it is culturally taboo to talk about these subjects so personally. In Senegal, women activists started an anonymous Goolge form for women to file reports without having their identities revealed. Urban newsrooms all across the globe need to do a better job at travelling to rural areas and report on the experiences of the women living there. In India 89% of women in the workforce live in rural areas and it was only when local newspapers began to write about #metoo and sexual harassment in their vernicular language that the movement began to have some steam.

Women in rural areas can also organize to write open letters to their politicians to bring the issue to light. WhatsApp has been an effective medium for mobilizing support for protests. Whatever the form, my hope for the new year for women in Africa is that they find a way to express their voices to come out against systems of oppression and sexual violence so that 2019 can be the year when their voices are included in the global push to end violence against women

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