On October 15, 2015, American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. The #MeToo campaign that followed became the subject of conversation and analysis around the world, particularly in the United States; with the ‘Silence Breakers’ named as Time magazine’s person of the year.
However, while there was some debate about the campaign in Kenya, the subject — like so many during the year — was ultimately overshadowed by the elections.
When #MeToo broke out, Kenya was days away from a fresh presidential election and opposition boycott. The elections were then followed by an election petition, bouts of police brutality, and an ongoing opposition campaign for ‘electoral justice’.
So why return to #MeToo now? In short, because it can contribute to a much needed conversation about the scale of sexual violence and harassment; the impact that it has on people’s lives; the reasons for why so many do not speak out about their experiences; and the changes that are required to tackle the problem.
Milano’s initial tweet came in the wake of revelations about how Harvey Weinstein, a powerful Hollywood producer, was a sexual predator who had raped, assaulted and/or harassed numerous women, mainly young and upcoming actresses.
This included Lupita Nyong’o who, on October 19, 2017, published a story in the New York Times of her own experience of Weinstein’s unwanted sexual advances.
The hashtag drew on a phrase that was coined over a decade ago by American social activist Tarana Burke to build solidarity among survivors of harassment and assault.
Herein lay the campaign’s power, as the hashtag, and various non-English language equivalents, linked the experiences of the rich and famous to those of millions of women around the world.
In so doing, the campaign highlighted the scale of the problem – both in terms of the levels of violence experienced by many, as well as the pervasiveness of sexual harassment more generally.
The first is a well-known problem, which periodically hits the Kenyan headlines, as it did, for example, in the wake of human rights reports on sexual violence around the 2017 election, or when allegations are made against politicians and other high profile individuals.
The problem is that such periodic reports are only the tip of the iceberg and rarely lead to perpetrators being held to account.
The second problem — namely, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment — often goes unacknowledged. With lewd jokes, unwanted gropes and the like 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.
However, as the British comedian Jo Brand succinctly put it, while most instances of sexual harassment do not constitute “high level crime”, “if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that wears you down”. And it wears women down in a number of ways — from the reinforcement of patriarchal power relations to the establishment of an environment in which women feel unsafe.
This is not to say that women experience more, or worse, violence than men. Such realities depend on the context. Men are more likely, for example, to be the victims of extra-judicial killings and political violence; while some men experience sexual assault and harassment.
Instead, it is to say that the pervasiveness of sexual harassment leads women to be ever conscious of their gender, their powerlessness relative to many men, and the possibility that harassment could easily turn into something uglier.
This is then intertwined with a common sense of shame when things do go wrong that, somehow, one encouraged it or did not do enough to stop it.
Combined with the difficulty of holding people to account, such a climate of fear and shame helps to explain why so few women speak out.
This is understandable, but it has the unfortunate effect of under-reporting the problem and of further isolating those who do.
But the problem is massive especially in highly unequal and patriarchal countries such as Kenya. It is thus time to talk about what constitutes harassment and assault; about why these problems are so pervasive; how they can be addressed; and how people can be supported to deal with their experiences.
Gabrielle Lynch is a Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Warwick ([email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6)