What we talk about when we talk about Africa’s #MeToo

In the aftermath of the Harvey-Weinstein scandal—he was accused of sexual misconduct by more than 80 women—the #MeToo movement started a debate about abuse of power and sexual violence against women. The popularity of #MeToo, a hashtag campaign whose origins trace back a decade to activist Tarana Burke, undoubtedly empowered many survivors of sexual abuse to talk about their own experiences.

Not only are women reporting sexual assault, they are also publicly naming their assaulters. And as more women speak out about their experiences, times are changing from when sexual crimes were enshrouded in silence. The social media campaign has generated about six million tweets since mid-October 2017, and now many ask “when are African women going to get onboard?” because Africa’s #MeToo movement appears nonexistent.

The U.S. has been at the forefront of this global conversation on sexual assault. Popular comedian Bill Cosby was indicted after allegations of sexual harassment were made public. Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company. Founding CEO of tech giant Uber, Travis Kalanick, was forced to resign. For countries in Africa, however, stories like this are often dismissed and high profile personalities rarely resign or are fired even through allegations.

In South Africa, sexism is almost kosher as sexual assault and violence is rife in the world’s rape capital, where femicide is five times higher than the global average. In Egypt, reports show that despite the growing willingness of Egyptian women to speak out about sexual assault online, the dire situation of women harassed on the streets is yet to improve. And there’s the fact of laws around the continent that permit underage and forced marriage for girls.

Some progress is being made though, like the time Daudi Were, executive director of the Kenyan software company Ushahidi, was fired by the board  on 22 July 2017 following an investigation into sexual harassment claims lodged by Angela Kabari, a former employee of the company. It is nowhere on the scale we should be having it but it’s something to be acknowledged nonetheless.

The stories coming out of Africa regarding sexual assault should not just be for media frenzy. They must have real implications as we have seen in the U.S. this year, and government response should remain consistent, fair, and upheld.

What becomes of women who speak out?

Questions about the effect of the #MeToo and #MosqueMeToo movement in Africa often reflect a lack of adequate thought about the subject, given that women brave enough to come out with their ordeals are often silenced, or made to face backlash for their choice to demand justice. They are met with lewd jokes and their allegations are all too frequently dismissed as harmless banter and a display of ‘normal’ gender relations that women either do not really mind, or understand as ‘natural’ male behaviour.

Often having no trust or respite in authorities, most of these allegations are made online were the media usually goes into overdrive with the stories. The repercussions are even harsher if the woman speaking out isn’t part of the elite or a celebrity. A case in point was when a woman known as Sugabelly named her rapist, Mustapha Audu, in a 2015 blogpost and was consequently verbally assaulted by scores of misogynistic Nigerian commentators, male and female alike.

We are now concerned about #MeToo because it has gotten worldwide coverage and brought repercussions as in the case of comedian Bill Cosby. But a #Metoo movement could easily have been generated with the attention one-time popular Twitter user Sugarbelly got in 2015 if media and legal systems did the work required to bring justice. While the #MeToo has spread somewhat to the developing world, the disparity in voices heard is not due to an absence of vocal women but the way foreign news and events are made larger than life.

In many African countries, the idea of a husband raping a wife is still considered absurd. If an infant is raped, there will be some remorse, but ultimately no justice. Where a teenager or young adult is raped, questions like “What were you doing there?”, “What were you wearing?”, “Why did you go to his house?”, “How were you acting?”, and so on, flood the victim’s consciousness. And if you’re wearing a mini skirt, you asked for it. If you’re raped as a lesbian, however, it is called correctional rape. All of these to protect the sacred cow: men. Their careers, image and reputations are to be upheld no matter the cost.

On 5 May 2018, Writer and activist Olutimehin Adegbeye told the story of how the BBC had interviewed her for a recent program while she was unaware that popular TV host Andre Blaze Henshaw was interviewed for the same slot. Upon discovering this, Adegbeye informed the BBC that Henshaw sexually assaulted her two years before and asked quietly for the content of the interview to be edited or deleted. Henshaw reacted to Adegbeye’s accusation on Twitter the way a lot of Nigerian men are known to react when called out: denial and claims of “defamation” of character.

In Henshaw’s case, his defence of being a son, brother, and father was a reminder of how the importance of a man in the eyes of society is upheld as unquestionable even in the presence of contrary evidence. A priest? Never. A blood related relative? impossible. A good son, brother and father, can never commit any crimes against a woman; what with all the good he has done?

There is hope though, as cooperate bodies begin to take these acts seriously while waiting for legal institutions to catch up – the BBC has finally, on 18 May, taken down the video. Women like Adegbeye, who define the landscape of young feminists illuminating the African social media landscape with their thoughts and wisdom, continue to challenge the norms of patriarchy, consistently educating many and intolerant of any pandering to those who would rather be whispered to. There may be no justice – not as much as we’d like – until the general injustice of corrupt systems do not hold as much power, but hopefully, someday there will be some repatriation for women who have spoken their truths and have been ignored.