What #MeToo did in Sweden

Unless you haven’t been on social media or read the news for the past few months, you can’t have missed #MeToo. In Sweden, the campaign was taken from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and put into practice in the real world, showing that activism on social media can generate actual change in society.

It is now almost 3 months since use of the hashtag peaked on several social platforms globally. Facebook reported that the phrase was used in over 12 million posts in just 24 hours. They also found that in the U.S., almost half of all users had a friend who had used the hashtag.

In the end, the most successful feature of the campaign was that it made a problem visible. #MeToo united women globally, and they all told a version of the same story – they had been subjected to some kind of sexual harassment or abuse. This abuse was no longer surrounded by silence, but rather recognised by people of all genders as a systematic problem in all societies. There were, however, many who doubted the effectiveness of an online campaign. Could a hashtag make a real change in society?

In Sweden, #MeToo quickly took hold of the country and was eagerly reported by media. In the few days after the campaign went viral, women from several different professions organised and collected names and stories of people affected by sexual harassment within their sector. Actors, doctors, chefs and lawyers were just some of the groups that launched their own follow-up campaigns, making the scale of the problem even more apparent.

Soon, several Swedish male celebrities were accused of rape, sexual harassment or misogynistic behaviour, and many of them had to leave their jobs as a result. The culture of silence was breaking down and companies could no longer cover up such accusations. High profile individuals within politics, TV and academia were exposed and removed from their posts, one by one. Power was no longer enough to protect people from the consequences of their actions. Hopefully, this cleanse of misogynistic plutocrats can create space for a more healthy, equal and sustainable culture within all sectors in Sweden and around the world.

But how can we make this change last? Media campaigns come and go and very few make it off the screen and into everyday life. Sexist structures are deeply rooted in most societies, and merely recognising the problem won’t be enough to eliminate it. But it is a step on the way. People can no longer deny the scope of this problem, and awareness is crucial when fighting social issues. Hopefully, grassroots activists will no longer be operating in headwinds. And maybe, Sweden can lead the way in this fight.

A new law that would require explicit sexual consent has been proposed by the Swedish government. TV-personalities have been fired and companies are adopting new policies of dealing with misogynistic behaviour. People are fighting for more thorough legal consequences for perpetrators of sexual harassment. Although we are far from finished, change is happening, and we must act quickly before things go back to ‘normal’. Effective change in society requires everyone to act, and it is crucial to use the energy, anger and hopefulness that has been generated during this campaign.

We have a long way to go, but for me, the #MeToo campaign is a sign of progress and shows what can happen when women unite. After all, this is what Girls’ Globe is about – raising the voices of women and showing that our experiences and voices matter.

Everyone knows someone who has been subjected to sexual harassment. Women have spoken up, the world has listened, and now all of us must act. The internet is powerful, and so are women. The culture of silence has been broken, and so let’s not only hope it stays that way, let’s make sure that it does. Let’s include everyone on that journey – him, her, them, and #metoo.

Here’s How We Combat GBV: Part 2

In Here’s How We Combat GBV: Part 1, I shared my top 5 ideas for how we can tackle and progressively eliminate gender-based violence. But a problem as persistent and extensive as this one requires an equally persistent and extensive response. There are many more than 5 things we can – and must – do.

Involve Private Sector 

We need to ensure that stringent employee protection and wellness practices are adopted throughout the private sector – particularly those promoting healthy relationships amongst colleagues and condemning any kind of harassment in the workplace. Companies needs to adopt new ethical principles on the way they advertise and commercialize their brands, especially when girls and women are their primary audience.

Media plays a huge role in creating and entrenching stereotypes, as well as in influencing lifestyles and shaping decisions. If women had a say in the kinds of advertisements shown to themselves, their spouses and their children, I believe we would have achieved sociocultural cohesion and equality to a far greater degree by now.

Increase Interaction & Information Dissemination

There needs to be an increase in information dissemination to women and men, equally. This could be achieved through annual summits aimed at bringing voices together to re-evaluate policies, programs and initiatives. Having an annual summit strictly for women and girls, another for men and boys, and another where these two groups come together to appreciate, recognize and learn from each other, could help to bridge existing gaps and bring all genders on board in tackling gender-based violence.

Improve Interventions at Universities

It must be a mandatory prerequisite for any prospective student at any educational institution to complete surveys on their understanding of gender-based violence before they’re able to enrol. New students should be required to sign a pledge committing to reporting violence taking place on campus and protecting victims. Students who report and address gender violence could be incentivized through programs that contribute towards their living expenses or tuition fees, and students should be consulted on what would work best for them.

In the USA, more than 1 in 5 young women will experience sexual assault or misconduct before they graduate, and that’s a reported statistic in a developed nation. Without exaggeration, we should quadruple that figure to try to estimate the staggering rates of sexual violence on campuses in developing nations.

End Harmful & Traditional Practices

Harmful and traditional practices, such as early and forced child marriage, need to be eradicated as a step towards eradicating gender-based violence more widely. The violence is often not only sexual in such circumstances, but also psychological and emotional. Men need to be given the responsibility to educate themselves and their peers on ending child marriage and speaking up about the rights of girls and young women. Malawi and Uganda have made great strides in ending child marriage in Africa, however, more needs to be done to create impact and change at community level.

Make Public Spaces Safer Spaces

In an effort to make public spaces safer, there needs to be an approach that can be adopted by key stakeholders throughout public, private and civil society sectors – aimed at raising awareness on safety measures in places most frequented by young people. Other measures such as installing street lights in dark public alleys and open spaces, and installing surveillance equipment around night clubs and ‘crime spots’, could potentially lead to more cases being reported (as there would be evidence), and girls and women could feel safer, irrespective of where they are and at what time they are there at.

Invest in Urban & Rural Development 

There is a need for governments to have help desks and survivor and victim rehabilitation centers offering comprehensive services – from counselling to support and care – in every district, both rural and urban. This would enable women and girls to access information about their health, in a place where confidentiality, friendliness, comfort and ease are guaranteed. Ensuring that there are adolescent health clinics providing youth-friendly health care facilities for the public is also essential. All women should be able to find easily accessible and affordable health facilities, and there should never be a need for women in rural areas to have to struggle to reach services in urban areas.

Invest in Data, Technology and Innovation

There is also a need for improved reporting mechanisms and infrastructure to assist in capturing information related to gender based violence and a great deal of resources need to go into data collection and sourcing. Living in a digitalized millennium, technology plays a pivotal role in influencing people across the globe and messages reach millions of people in different geographic locations in seconds. Innovation and technology needs to be used more effectively not only in reporting violence, but as a powerful tool that women and girls can use to protect themselves from potential threats and unforeseen violent situations.

Prioritize Women’s Economic Emancipation

Women need to be empowered economically to ensure their independence. Many women make a decision (not a choice) to stay in unhealthy relationships where they experience violence and abuse from their partners, due to not having the means to sustain themselves if they were to leave the relationship. More opportunities that will contribute to women’s economic emancipation, empowerment and employment are needed if we are to reduce the prevalence of abusive relationships.

Girls’ Globe is publishing opinions and ideas on tackling gender-based violence from our global network of bloggers and organizations during each of the 16 Days of Activism. We’re also crowdfunding to be able to continue to raise the voices of girls and young women in 2018 – voices like Zanele’s. Donate today and help us to continue building a safer, more equal world. 

When Security is Sexist

I was surprised, and yet not surprised, to be flagged as a high-security risk on my latest trip to the United States from the Middle East. I’ve received the infamous red “SSSS” stamp on my boarding pass before, the four letters that stand for “secondary security screening selection,” and I’ve gone through finger prints and pictures and pat-downs before getting on a plane. Resigned to the scrutiny, I usually don’t give it much thought.

But this time the secondary screening was more invasive, more intrusive, more dehumanizing. Was it that the Trump administration heightened precautions and narrowed definitions of rights? Was it that someone, somewhere disapproves of the patchwork of stamps from conflict-ridden places in my passport? Was it that I was traveling alone and therefore I, with my long hair pulled up in a bun and dangling earrings, seemed like an easy way to reach a quota of people screened?

Whatever it was, I was pulled aside for my bag to be searched by a man who insisted on calling me “girl.” Out of all of the suspicious items – including a laptop and two cell phones that would have provided a mountain of information were I actually a threat – this man focused on my toiletry bag. After smearing my lipstick on the table and blowing onto my powder, he smirked as he unwrapped each of my menstrual pads, ran his hands over them and then held them up for his male colleagues.

Let that simmer. He unwrapped and touched each and every pad and held them up for his male colleagues.

This was supposed to embarrass me. I didn’t flinch because working with adolescent girls means I talk about menstruation as comfortably as most people order lunch. So instead I stood there, responding to his smirk with a cold glare, as he played a sex-intimidation game that had no place in an airport, no place during entry to the United States, no place anywhere. After having spread bacteria over something that was once sanitary, he ordered the more invasive “body search.” The woman who ran her hands up my bra was apologetic, but the men who looked on were not.

This experience was an infuriating reminder that women’s bodies – and all bodies of people who have been othered – remain battlegrounds, sites of search and seizure, sites of exploitation and sites of terrorism. If we differ from the socially constructed norm, we reflect something that must be checked, controlled and owned. For women and girls, our bodies have been made sites of customized-by-culture abuse and exploitation.

In the United States, intimate partner violence makes the most dangerous place for a woman her own home. In Jordan, victims of rape are imprisoned if not killed by family in the name of so-called “honor.” In China, there are more men and boys than women and girls due to sex-selective abortion that eliminates girls before they are born. And in airports, check-points and other spaces in-between, women can be touched and groped and fondled under the guise of security.

This airport encounter is more than crude behavior; this is one of many transgressions so intertwined with daily life that it is difficult to tease it out as a transgression. It doesn’t seem horrifying in that this kind of thing happens all of the time. And as I tackle the big and bold issues impacting marginalized girls, I fall into the pattern of accepting the transgressions in my own life as both inevitable and relatively harmless.

But they are not inevitable. And they are not harmless. These small acts violate human dignity and reflect a larger, systemic sexism and misogyny that is directly connected to those big and bold issues.

I always seem to have a solution in my work. I can talk about solutions to end child marriage and strategies to curtail trafficking for hours, but I can be speechless when it comes to everyday sexism and misogyny. We’ve named the big issues, we’ve shed light on them and we’ve developed (somewhat of) a consensus that issues like child marriage and trafficking must be addressed. But it is somehow still OK to catcall, harass, coercive and intimidate girls and women, especially when done by those in power, because these issues are more nebulous and are made out to be benign.

The conclusion I can draw is that silence normalizes; words disrupt. And so we must speak loudly and boldly to disrupt the normalcy of sexual intimidation, coercion and abuse. These nebulous issues must be given a shape by our words. We cannot fight the threat that exists in the dark, but we certainly can fight the one we’re shining the light on.

Addressing Cyber Violence and Harassment

Orange Day – a day to take action to raise awareness and prevent violence against women and girls”, is celebrated on 25th of the month, according to UN Women. July 2017’s Orange Day Action Theme was cyber violence against women.

To mark the day, UN Women hosted a panel moderated by Emily Mahaney, Senior Editor at Glamour Magazine. Panelists were Feminista Jones, a writer, activist, survivor of cyber violence, and creator of the hashtag #YouOKSis; Emily May, Co-founder and Executive Director of Hollaback!; and Jamia Wilson, Press Executive Director and Publisher at CUNY Feminist.

Research published this year showed that in the US:

  • 70% of US adults surveyed who identify as women say that “online harassment is a ‘major problem’”, compared to 54% of those surveyed who identify as men.
  • 41% of American adults said that they have experienced some form of online harassment, which the survey defined as “offensive name-calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment, or harassment over a sustained period of time”.
  • Even though both sexes reported experiencing cyber violence, women reported a worse experience: 34% of them experienced their latest incident as “extremely” or “very” upsetting, versus 16% of men reporting the same.

At its core, the internet is another public space where women can experience forms of violence or harassment, similar to catcalling on the street or inappropriate touching on a subway. To improve the online experience for all, Jamia Wilson suggested that online etiquette should be taught early on, both at schools and at home, and that adults should instruct children how to behave respectfully online, just as they teach children how to behave in public spaces

Emily Mahaney asked the panelists perhaps the most burning question we all have about cyberviolence and harassment: who perpetrates these acts of cyber violence, and what is their motivation? 

Feminsta Jones answered that the perpetrators are usually men who feel injured by women in some way, such as rejection from a woman in their lives or having been cheated on by their partners, and harassing women online is a way for them to channel their resentment. In terms of motivation, all panelists mentioned two things: power and dominance. May mentioned that it’s hard to pinpoint a perpetrator’s identity exactly, but that their real identity is not as important as the identity they assume online, which is usually that of a white, cisgender, and heterosexual man.

It might be logical to think that most perpetrators of cyber violence and harassment will do so anonymously or using a fake identity, but Jones mentioned that she has been attacked by people using their real pictures and names.

Although the violence and harassment are ‘virtual’, the consequences are very real. Being a victim of harassment and cyber violence can cause serious psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Jones, for example, shared that she suffers from agoraphobia after experiencing cyber violence and harassment.

Cyber violence and harassment can indeed affect the victim’s life offline, especially when threats include rape or physical violence. Victims may feel the need to change their phone numbers and address, as well as becoming wary of being online again. Because consequences can impact a person’s offline life, Wilson talked about the importance of therapy for victims in their recovery process.

On how to help victims, May suggested that if we see someone suffering cyber violence or harassment, we should acknowledge the victim, whether through a comment or private message, even if that person is a stranger to us. To end the panel, Mahaney asked the panelists to identify one positive thing we can all do change this environment of cyber violence and harassment and to support each other. Wilson encourages us to speak up and share our stories if we have been a victim ourselves. May encourages us to remember that there are people out there that have your back and don’t forget to have the backs of others. Jones’ advice was simple but powerful: ask people if they’re ok.

If you have experienced some form of cyber violence and/or harassment – or know someone who has – visit iheartmob.org for help and support.