In October 2017, the hashtag #MeToo encouraged thousands of women to speak out about sexual harassment and abuse. Within hours, the call went viral around the world, showing once again that sexual harassment and abuse know no boundaries of geography or culture. It happens everywhere: in our everyday lives, at our workplaces, in our universities. Despite widespread commitment to end all forms of injustice and inequality, the development and humanitarian aid sector is no exception.
What is Gender-Based Violence?
Everyone experiences violence differently. For some, gender-based violence starts with a catcall, a hand around one’s waist or a hug that is too long or too tight, while others might rather think of the most severe forms of gender-based violence, such as rape or murder.
Many men and boys are beaten, raped, humiliated, or discriminated against for not complying with widespread, but harmful beliefs of what it is to be a ‘proper’ man. Yet, gender-based violence disproportionately affects women and girls. Violence against Women is “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.
Even though we tend to believe gender-based violence is a problem that mainly happens in the ‘Global South’, it is a widespread phenomenon that takes place everywhere: both in the ‘North’ and the ‘South’. We all, through our words, silences, actions and inactions, are part of this phenomenon.
In the Netherlands, for instance, almost half of all women have experienced physical or sexual violence. Three quarters of survivors of domestic violence are females, while almost all perpetrators of partner, ex-partner, and other types of gender-based violence are males. Six percent of Dutch respondents of a EU-wide survey believe that sex without consent “may be justified” if the other person is “wearing revealing, provocative or sexy clothing”. It is difficult to imagine male survivors being blamed for ‘asking for it’.
What if everyone used the logic of victim-blaming?
“Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today.” – UN
In 1991, the UN declared the 25th of November the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Ever since, activists around the world participate in #16DaysOfActivism against gender-based violence from November 25th until the International Human Rights Day on December 10th. Each year, organisations and activist groups around the world use the #16DaysOfActivism to raise awareness. Despite these joint global efforts, gender-based violence and harmful social norms continue to exist. Many women and men continue to see excessive jealousy as ‘a proof of love’ or expect males to be ‘dominant’ and ‘insistent’ – not realizing that such beliefs pave the way for further violence.
So are #16DaysOfActivism and #MeToo useless?
Probably, in many places using the hashtags will not result in a policy change or a measurable result. Most of the social media campaigns are very aware of that, but they also know that raising awareness is the first step to achieve social change. You would be surprised how many women and men still think incidences of gender-based violence are only isolated cases.
“One of the main goals of The me too Movement™ is to give young women, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, a sense of empowerment from the understanding that they are not alone in their circumstances.”
– The original #MeToo Campaign
Similarly, Alyssa Milano’s famous ‘me too’ tweet aimed to illustrate the magnitude of the problem.
If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. https://t.co/k2oeCiUf9n—
Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017
Is this enough? No. However, two main things should be noted. First, the narrative has evolved through the years. In Germany for instance, the debate in 2013 around the hashtag #Aufschrei (#Outcry) was about whether sexism existed in society. Now – four years later – it is more about the extent of sexism.
A major critique of this online activism – better known as clicktivism – is that it is too easy to ‘share’, ‘like’, or ‘comment’ on social media – but is it really effective? And how should we move forward from a simple click or share? We have no answers, but we do know the challenge is on ALL of us. There are success stories where increased debate around sexual harassment and abuse has led to the introduction of ‘groping’-paragraphs, in which ‘less severe’ unwanted sexual acts are recognised as criminal offenses.
The value of online initiatives is that in an interconnected world, a struggle can resonate simultaneously at local as well as global level. Our ‘words’ are no longer limited to our specific communities or neighbourhoods, which helps to build solidarity among people from different social classes, backgrounds and experiences.
What is Oxfam doing?
Oxfam is committed to continue the fight for women’s rights and to put an end to all forms of violence. As part of society, Oxfam cannot be an exception to the problems affecting the society, but how the organization acts and reacts over these allegations is key. Acknowledging that international organizations are not excluded from these problems and that no one is free of responsibility makes Oxfam accountable to the society they work for and with. Oxfam is takings steps to create a safe space for all Oxfam Staff and improve how they respond to sexual harassment and violence claims. As an example of that, last month Oxfam Great Britain dismissed 22 staff members over sexual abuse allegations. Still:
“We all, including Oxfam, need to get better at preventing and dealing with sexual abuse but as an international organisation fighting for women’s rights we have a special responsibility to practise what we preach and protect our staff, volunteers and beneficiaries from sexual harassment and abuse.”
– Oxfam spokesperson
To end violence against women and girls everywhere, Oxfam has launched a campaign to challenge harmful gender norms, and to encourage women and men across the world to #SayEnough to violence against women and girls. Oxfam Novib wants to contribute to a world without violence, and invites everyone to say: #EnoughIsEnough.
If you or someone you know have experienced violence and want to seek help, you can get in touch with specialised organisations who can offer you medical, psychological, and legal support. For instance: https://www.centrumseksueelgeweld.nl/