#MeToo has blown up the Western media world over the past month, covering every news platform possible with stories of women and men who have shown immense courage and bravery in revealing past incidents of sexual harassment, assault, and violence. #MeToo, however, is not a recent phenomenon and in fact stems back as far as 1996 where it was sparked by activist Tarana Burke in response to a young girl revealing a harrowing tale of sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father. Burke describes ‘Me Too’ as serving a dual purpose as both a ‘declarative statement’ about refusing to feel shame but also as a ‘statement from survivor to survivor’ uniting those who have experienced sexual harassment, abuse, and violence. In the wake of the shocking revelations about Harvey Weinstein across Hollywood, Alyssa Milano called for sexual assault survivors to respond with #MeToo on Twitter to reveal the true extent of the ‘magnitude of the problem’.
Milano’s tweet did just that; 4.7 million people engaged with the #MeToo in the first 24 hours with ‘more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions’ women and men united to share their stories of abuse. Social media became a ‘galvanising platform’ where survivors could share experiences, support, and affirmation that no one is alone in surviving sexual abuse and violence. The significant extent to which #MeToo has spread is immensely bittersweet. On one hand it provides an incredible platform for those whose voices have been silenced and catalysing a response from all arenas of industry. A month on from the initial allegations reports of sexual harassment and violence have emerged across Hollywood detailing incidents that span a century as well as the more recent explosion of allegations from inside Westminster and British politics. But on the other hand, it is crucial to remember that as truly powerful and empowering as this platform has proven to be, it also reveals the dark and harrowing truth of sexual violence that I fear only represents the very tip of the iceberg.
It is thus crucial to consider how we should respond and address the challenge of taking #MeToo ‘beyond a viral moment’. The media has responded by calling us to ‘list the perpetrators’ which has been initiated with the creation of physical lists of perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence within the Western world. However, I call for an alternative next step to be taken that moves us beyond #MeToo in the West and to expand its reaches in revealing the extent to which sex is utilised as an instrument of power but also within Central Africa, as a weapon of war.
On the same day as the Harvey Weinstein allegations were formalised through the New York Times, Human Rights Watch published a highly disturbing report; detailing their investigation into sexual violence by armed groups in the Central African Republic. This examines the immense brutality and violence seen within the armed conflict in the region since 2012 where citizens have paid the highest price. Sexual violence has become a commonplace ‘weapon of war’ utilised by both the ‘predominantly Muslim Seleka group and the largely Christian and animist militia.’
This conflict originates from the disenfranchisement of Muslim rebel groups in the region who formed under the ‘banner of the Seleka in late 2012’. The Seleka rebels launched attacks that specifically targeted civilians and as result thousands of civilians have been displaced. However, the response from the anti-Balaka, the opposition, also targeted civilians by conducting ‘large scale assaults on Muslim civilians’. As part of these violent campaigns women and young girls (and in a small number of incidents, men) have been raped, physically assaulted, kidnapped, and enslaved for sex by the armed groups.
The Human Rights Watch report details interviews of 296 survivors comprised of women and girls who have been ‘brutalised’ by the armed groups. Extracts from these harrowing interviews details women and incredibly young girls being raped in front of their husbands and families, rape by sometimes more than 10 perpetrators, the usage of torture on these women, and one interviewee detailing being raped with a broken bottle. The usage of sexual violence as part of war within the region is alarmingly common with the UN recording over 2500 cases of sexual violence in 2014 alone, whilst the reality of low reporting levels demonstrates that this number is probably much higher.
This report also details the highly complex plethora of issues that surround sexual violence within the region. This includes the limited access to any post-rape medical care because of a lack of medical facilities but also due to the costs involved in accessing these services – the report demonstrates that only 145 of 296 survivors had any access to even basic post-rape medical care. In addition, there is very limited psychosocial support available to those who have been the victim of sexual violence with only 66 of the women interviewed receiving any post-rape psychosocial support.
Crucially a highly pervasive cultural stigma surrounds issues of rape and sexual violence within the Central African Republic which frequently sees women being abandoned by their partners and families as a result of their rape. This stigma also leads to chronic under-reporting as many of the women and girls fear the consequences should they come forward. This is worsened by a highly ‘dysfunctional justice system’ which has seen no member of either armed group be tried for rape or sexual violence during the conflict. Many women receive death threats to prevent them from reporting these incidents which has led to women feeling intimidated and utterly powerless particularly in seeing their attackers in positions of power within their villages and towns. The lack of institutional strategy to deal with this wide-spread issue is worsened as the ongoing conflict has ‘decimated’ the countries institutions. This means that the authorities lack any ‘capacity to prevent, investigate, and prosecute sexual violence.’ And more broadly the Government has ‘no national strategy to prevent or address sexual violence.’
However, I do not seek in any way to undermine or compare the experiences of the women and men who have courageously come forward because of the empowering and equally heart-breaking phenomenon of #MeToo. Sexual violence, assault, and harassment should not happen in any form, in any part of the world and every single instance is a true tragedy and must be stopped. In fact, this article calls for those involved in #MeToo to utilise their fantastic platform to not only list the survivors in the West or even to list the perpetrators, but to also expand their community’s reach and raise awareness of the horrifying incidents that are occurring worldwide. To harness the immense power of social media in providing a platform for those who are silenced by the ineffectiveness of their national institutions, silenced by cultural stigma, and who are silenced by poverty which prevents them in seeking the support and medical treatment they so desperately require. #MeToo has named the survivors, listed the perpetrators now let’s take #MeToo one step further in engaging 4.7 million people in conversation about the women and young girls in the Central African Republic who need the platform that we have proven we can provide.