20 October 2017

Africa: #MeToo Challenges Taboo Against Admitting Sexual Abuse in Africa

Dakar — The #MeToo social media campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment and abuse has sparked conversation in parts of Africa where domestic violence is rampant but strong cultural and religious taboos prevent women from admitting it.

Prompted by sexual abuse allegations against American film mogul Harvey Weinstein, millions of women around the world have been sharing their experiences of harassment and abuse on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #MeToo.

The movement has reached only a small part of the population in West Africa, but some women are participating in defiance of attitudes which dictate that being abused brings shame on the family, is a curse, or makes a woman unmarriageable.

In Senegal, some women said #MeToo inspired the first conversations they had ever had about sexual assault or harassment, and that they were relieved to be able to discuss it with their friends. In other cases, the hashtag was not well-received.

Women in Senegal and Nigeria said that people were so afraid of being associated with the topic that few commented on or reacted to their #MeToo posts. In one case, a woman was pressured to delete hers out of fear that her family might find out.

"Sexual harassment is so endemic in society that it is almost a right for men in Nigeria," said 39-year-old Faustina Anyanwu, who posted on Twitter about experiencing harassment when she worked as a nurse.

"It is almost impossible, in fact, unimaginable for a woman to report such cases," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Culturally, the woman is ostracised and will not be married."

According to a 2016 World Bank report, one in two African women say they accept domestic violence and about a third have suffered abuse.

In Senegal, which is 95 percent Muslim, women are widely expected to remain virgins until marriage and girls are taught that their modesty is key to maintaining family honour.

"There is a taboo here against everything to do with sexuality," said 28-year-old musician Daba Makourejah, who posted a story on Facebook about being harassed, although she knew some might not approve.

"We don't talk about these things," she said.

However, young people are slowly breaking the silence, said Mona Chasserio, who runs a shelter in Senegal for women who have been raped or abused.

"Women are starting to speak out, little by little, but we're only at the very beginning," Chasserio told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Social media could help accelerate that movement, said Ismaila Kamby, president of the activist group "Touche pas a ma soeur" ("Don't touch my sister").

Kamby said he would be interested in starting a campaign similar to #MeToo in Senegal.

"For certain women who have suffered domestic violence, I think it's something that could work, if there were people to lead it," he said. "But this is not an easy thing."

 - Reporting By Nellie Peyton; Editing by Ros Russell

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