The year 2017 saw a palpable shift in the discourse of women’s rights, in a large part due to the #MeToo movement. Though the phrase was coined by activist Tarana Burke more than 10 years prior, the hashtag hit the mainstream after prominent celebrities began telling their stories of enduring abuse and misconduct. In the viral wave that followed, women harnessed the power of Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to take to the streets, tell their stories and hold powerful men accountable. That impact has been felt from Hollywood, California to Washington, D.C., and has resulted in a national discourse on the plight of women in the U.S.
The phenomenon also spread well beyond American borders, and though some cultures have begun to take the empowerment of women to heart, it has not been met with openness everywhere.
In India, the hashtag helped fuel an ongoing conversation about sexual abuse (a woman is reportedly raped every twenty minutes, and India’s National Crime Record Bureau says rape-related cases rose 12% from 2015 to 2016). One primary factor is that women who occupy lower castes or live in rural areas have little to no access to education or finances. Another issue is that culturally males are preferred over females, and women are regarded as “lower” than men.
Blank Noise, a community project that is run completely by volunteers, has worked in India for nearly 15 years to confront the culture of harassment prevalent in many places throughout the country. The organization’s founder, Jasmeen Patheja, told PBS NewsHour that #MeToo demonstrated the power of women’s voices.
“It symbolizes the shift that we’re no longer willing to sit in silence and shame and denial,” she said. “It’s created a space to listen in, share, heal.”
There are other instances where women realize their power in coming together:
In Ethiopia, several girls banded together to have a teacher who had sexually assaulted them removed. These students overcame their fear of speaking out by sharing with each other and saying #MeToo.
In China, Dr. Luo Xixi contacted several other women who had been sexually harassed by a Beihang University professor. The professor was later suspended after the university was given Luo’s collection of evidence of his misconduct. Luo directly credits the hashtag for inspiring her and the other women to come forward.
Though not officially a part of #MeToo, Heifer International has recognized for years the value of empowering women to take control of their own lives. A large part of Heifer’s field work involves supporting women’s groups in India, Bangladesh, Ecuador and elsewhere by providing them with tools, training and other resources. This work also involves getting men in these communities to see women as respected community leaders and family providers.
However, there is still fierce resistance to the movement in parts of the world. #MeToo has been slow to gain mainstream traction in China due to government efforts to censor social media around the topic while cracking down on feminist organizations. The hashtag spread to Afghanistan, but quickly died down after women received threats of rape and death for speaking out (they often feared punishment from by their own families for “dishonoring” them). It is estimated that 60-70 percent of Russian women do not report domestic abuse, often because authorities take the side of the abuser, downplay women’s concerns or ignore them altogether.
Still, for some, progress is progress. Sophie Gilbert wrote in a piece for the Atlantic, “There’s a monumental amount of work to be done in confronting a climate of serial sexual predation—one in which women are belittled and undermined and abused and sometimes pushed out of their industries altogether. But uncovering the colossal scale of the problem is revolutionary in its own right.”
That may be so. At some point, however, the real impact of #MeToo will be measured, not just in retweets and calls for awareness, but in the decline of crimes against women and increase of abusers who are held accountable. This will require governments to do away with archaic policies that encourage or protect such behavior, and for cultural attitudes to create space for women to speak freely and without fear of judgment or reprisal.