LONDON: A global movement to stop sexual harassment of women will spark change but not for everyone, with poorer women still scared to report abuse fearing blame and backlash, according to a street survey and women’s rights experts in five continents.
Ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, the Thomson Reuters Foundation asked people in Britain, the United States, Kenya, India, and Brazil whether the #MeToo movement dominating headlines was just a viral buzz or means change for women.
Some people said they now felt more confident to speak out against abuse, but others were fearful of repercussions and some said the campaign had failed to gain traction in their country.
The past year has been pivotal for women’s rights after accusations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein sparked the #MeToo campaign, with women taking to social media and the streets to highlight experiences of abuse.
One in three women globally has experienced physical or sexual violence, mostly by someone they know, UN Women says.
“(The campaign has) made people realize that sexual harassment has been a social norm, and now people are recognizing that it’s not ok,” said Ruth McCabe, 32, who runs a London business that reduces food waste.
“A campaign like this brings out the fact that every second woman is experiencing it. Whether you are the CEO of the company or a maid,” said 42-year-old entrepreneur Suman Chhabria Addepalli in Mumbai.
From film sets, parliaments to businesses, revelations of sexual abuse have sent shockwaves around the world. Even the aid sector was hit by reports that some staff at charity Oxfam paid for sex with prostitutes in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
A survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in February found more than 120 staff from about 20 leading global charities were fired or lost their jobs in 2017 over sexual misconduct.
“I think it’s a tipping point for long-term change for women. It’s time that our voices are heard,” said New York-based senior executive Fabiana Mello.
Not taken seriously
But not all women feel they are able to speak out against abuse, said Jemima Olchawski from the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights group in Britain.
“It’s always incumbent on us to watch out for the gaps — who’s not part of this conversation? Whose voice isn’t being heard?” she said.
In parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the #MeToo campaign has struggled to gain momentum.
Brazilian shopkeeper Talita Celia e Silva, 29, said many women remain too fearful to speak out against their abuser.
“We do not know how far (the movement) will go … I think there are a lot of women who still suffer and are afraid to talk,” said Silva from Rio de Janeiro.
Mumbai consultant Archana Aravind Patney, 43, believes conversations about #MeToo and sexual harassment have died down in India, where the fatal gang-rape of a woman on a bus in 2012 sparked protests and global attention to violence against women.
“I hardly see people talking about it. Maybe people think this was a short-term, celebrity kind of a campaign, but not something that can impact them,” Patney said.
Nairobi student Faith, 22, said sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement is not taken seriously in Kenya and some men “think it’s some sort of joke”.
“I think it’s a long-term thing in the West, but here in Kenya, it’s more of a social media buzz,” said Faith, who did not want to give her surname for privacy.
Another Kenyan student Brian, 21, who did not want his surname used, said limited internet access meant that people in poorer rural communities would not be able to fully participate in the online movement.
The global campaign has also failed to make a mark in Thailand as there is little discussion of women’s rights and sexual abuse, said Jadet Chaowilai, director of rights group Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation.
“There is a very deep-rooted patriarchy, and women don’t feel comfortable talking about harassment or abuse – even with their families,” he said.
There are few convictions for abuse and rape, despite more victims coming forward rising in recent years, he said.
“If they do try to register a complaint with the police, very often they will be blamed, their behaviour criticized: ‘Why were you out late? What were you wearing? Why did you talk to that man?’,” Chaowilai said.