Beyond a Hashtag

Like most women around the world, I have a #MeToo story. In fact, I have many.

When I was traveling solo as a woman, I was assaulted by the owner of a South African hotel who preferred sex as payment, and I was raped when I fled porn being publicly broadcast at an Italian train station. While traveling with a friend to be safer, both of us were propositioned. And it’s not just while traveling: I’ve had a gynecologist “massage” me to “help with the pain.”

These experiences, and the dozens of stories like them—and worse—that I have heard from friends and the thousands of women I’ve worked with, are what fuels the passion I have for my work at Women for Women International, helping women survivors of war and violence rebuild their lives.

Copyright Harriet Tolputt

It has long been known that violence against and harassment of women is a global problem, with multiple UN studies over the decades citing 1 in 3 women affected. I have always suspected the problem is much worse. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, up to 40 percent of women have faced some kind of sexualized violence. Across the European Union, between 45 and 55 percent of women experience some form of sexual harassment since the age of 15; only 6 percent report to colleagues, only 4 percent contact the police and less than 1 percent speak to a lawyer. In Brazil, 84 percent of women report having been sexually harassed by the police. In Afghanistan, 90 percent of women interviewed in seven provinces said they had faced harassment on their streets or at schools or workplaces. In Egypt, 99 percent of women surveyed across seven regions said they had faced sexual harassment.  

If we’ve known this for so long, why does it continue? Women for Women International board member and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg summarized the problem in a Facebook post earlier this month. In her own words: “it’s about power, stupid.” And more specifically, it’s about unequal power. Sandberg noted that she was harassed less as she grew more powerful, and explained that unequal distribution of power makes it possible for harassers and abusers to behave in unacceptable ways. The balance of power is on the side of abusers, and they know they will face few, if any, repercussions. Sandberg called for better policies to hold abusers accountable, but she went beyond that. She reminded us all that we have to invest in systems and services that help women be and feel safer in the world.

The largely U.S.-based “Silence Breakers” have sparked a renewed global conversation about sexual harassment and abuse. From Afghanistan to France, from the United Kingdom to India, people are using social platforms and traditional media to come forward and speak about the harassment and violence they’ve been subject to. This has happened before—but this time, at least in the U.S., there have been some real consequences. More than a dozen public figures have lost their jobs, among them some of Hollywood and Washington, D.C.’s most powerful men; Roy Moore’s defeat, partly due to allegations of sexual harassment, is only the latest example of repercussions, not the last one.

But there is a real risk that #MeToo could die down—unless we go beyond the hashtag. The mother of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, recently told CNN that the time is now to go further—to organize and create a movement. “Now,” she said, “the work really begins.” She has also argued that while it is fantastic that survivors are coming forward with their stories, we also must ensure they have access to safe spaces to heal.

Burke is right: In nearly 25 years of serving women survivors of conflict and violence around the world, we’ve learned that survivors need tangible support. They need psychosocial therapy and tools to recuperate emotionally, physically and financially. In countries where we work, women are often thrown out of families and communities if they report being abused; they need help to re-establish livelihoods and to rebuild their confidence and courage.

Women at WfWI’s partner program gather for a psycho-social therapy class in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. (Copyright Alison Baskerville)

Sisterhood is a critical part of healing. Survivors need to come together in communities to share their stories with each other and heal, as many of us have done online. Women who don’t have access to social media or other platforms to raise their voices, or the safety to do so, also need a space where they can tell their stories and be heard. They need to hear the stories of other women and to feel less isolated.

This is why in eight countries impacted by conflict and war, we work with the most impoverished and socially excluded women to not only provide them access to our transformative yearlong program that teaches them valuable life and business skills, but also connect them to other women. This sisterhood helps women begin heeling from some of the most violent cases of rape as well as the every-day harassment and sexism that many have unfortunately come to see as mundane and inevitable.

Healing is a process. Even now, I sometimes feel shame despite having a great support network. Other women speaking out through #MeToo has helped. And, even more profoundly, helping other women survivors gain the tools they need, seeing them overcome their terrible experiences, has been incredibly healing.

We have gotten so used to the statistics, so used to the reality, that many believe this is “just the way it is.” But it does not have to be this way. Our daughters and sons all around the world deserve better. They deserve to grow up in a world where they feel safe. Our daughters deserve a world where they can be free, ambitious and brave. Our sons deserve a world where they don’t have to perform violent masculinity in order to be seen as “man enough” so they can have genuine, trusting and human relationships with the women they cross paths with.

I know that by coming together, we can make this world a reality. In order to do so, we have to put in the work to end the most prevalent form of violence in the world: physical, sexualized and emotional violence against women.

Laurie Adams is Women for Women International’s Chief Executive Officer.

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