In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, I keep hearing the same refrain as more women add their voices to #MeToo and share stories of sexual violence: how did I let that happen? Pretty much every woman I know has experienced that knee-jerk reaction that somehow it’s her fault, even though it never is. Every woman I know has felt that sinking sensation when you freeze and think: is this actually happening to me? And, why is nobody doing anything about it—especially me?
Even though I research gender-based violence for a living, I still got choked up seeing how many of my family and friends joined the #MeToo chorus. From my elderly aunt’s “#MeToo, last week at the grocery store,” to a friend’s shocking confession of repeated assault when she was a young girl, to my own experience being grabbed at a business event as I gave a presentation on—of all things—women’s rights, one thing is clear: sexual harassment and assault happen to women everywhere, no matter their age, what city they call home, what they do for a living or what they decide to wear.
Sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes in Canada and around the world. Statistics Canada says there are about 22 reported incidents for every 1,000 Canadians aged 15 years and older. But the sheer number of women telling their stories over the past week suggests the actual number is WAY higher.
For the longest time many have assumed gender-based violence on this scale was only a problem in other countries where women don’t have the same rights. But we need to take a good long look in the mirror. As empowering and cathartic as it is to swap stories and find comfort in shared experience, we owe ourselves more than a #MeToo hashtag. As a society, we must move this conversation beyond forcing women to constantly relive past trauma, and focus on what we can all actually do to end this culture of complicity that enables sexual violence.
What needs to stop asap
Let’s start with what doesn’t work. What absolutely needs to stop is the shaming levelled at the women brave enough to come forward with their stories. Especially from prominent and influential female voices in Hollywood and the media. No one has the right to decide that another person’s story isn’t that traumatizing. Ignorant comments like that only discourage the next person from speaking out, and empower perpetrators to justify their crimes.
What also doesn’t work is people feigning surprise once news breaks about a known predator. The complicity of silence in the Weinstein case is exactly the kind of culture organizations like Oxfam Canada are trying to change in countries around the world where women don’t report rape because of shame and stigma.
This is problem extends far beyond Hollywood
No matter where women live, they deal with the epidemic of gender-based harassment and violence. Conservatively-dressed women of all ages face everything from sexual innuendos to rape on the streets of Cairo. Young women and girls in Pakistan are dropping out of school or are being forced to stay home rather than face daily sexual harassment and assault. Indigenous women in Canada go missing and are killed at rates six times higher than non-Indigenous women. And get this: due to legal loopholes, child marriage is actually legal in all 50 of the United States of America, where some legislators insist young girls marry their rapist.
As bleak as it all sounds, there are some great initiatives around the world where people are working tirelessly to challenge social norms used to justify violence against women and girls. So what can we learn from other countries tackling these issues that we can apply in our own backyard?
In short, a lot.
Brave young women and girls in difficult circumstances are chipping away at this culture every day. In Indonesia, a young girl named Putri was married when she was only 13. Through a program that offers critical support, counselling, social services, legal aid and job training, she found the courage to speak out and become an advocate for other girls facing child marriage. Imagine how hard it is to change the mindset in a country where child marriage is not only considered normal, but also expected. Still, Putri and other young women like her are now helping their communities challenge these long-held beliefs.
If Putri can do it, what’s stopping the rest of us from becoming influencers in our own workplaces, social circles and families? We can speak out against violence, call others out when they cross the line and create a more empowering culture no matter where we live. We can do this both on and offline.
What you can do right now
Evidence from around the world shows how important it is to engage the men and boys in our lives too. So talk to your brother, your dad, your son, your nephew and your best friend’s kids about how they can make change happen. In my time at Oxfam, I have seen some pretty creative approaches to reach men and boys. Mixing educational material with entertainment works well. So does engaging teachers, actors, the media and police to help boys realize they play a vital role in eliminating violence. If you have kids, ask their schools to develop gender-aware “edutainment” programs to raise awareness.
We also know that women’s rights organizations working to increase access to vital services help encourage young women and girls to speak out. Why not find one in your community that you can support? Whether you donate money or your time, you can connect with survivors to let them know they’re not alone.
And finally: get political. Support candidates who speak out against sexual violence and champion women’s rights, and make sure to vote any chance you get. That’s the only way you can demand change and hold the people who represent you accountable. After all, you do help pay their salaries.
Changing culture is the most important thing we can do. We can all pressure governments to pass tougher laws, demand sexual and reproductive health services for women and girls, and work with employers and police to take the reporting of rape and violence more seriously. But all of these efforts will amount to very little until we create a culture where speaking out does not mean an end to a woman’s career, her social network, or—in far too many cases worldwide—her life.
Since my experience at the business event, I am learning to shut down that voice in my head that says, “What did I do wrong?” I’m focusing on what I can do to push back at the deeply-engrained patriarchal attitudes that made that man think it was okay. And, as hard as it is, I’m slowly learning to get more comfortable about speaking up.
In the wake of Weinstein, we need to move this discussion beyond public shaming and trending hashtags. If we don’t, we will fall back into complacency when the news cycle moves on.
Mayssam Zaaroura is a Women’s Rights Knowledge Specialist at Oxfam Canada