The #MeToo movement against sexual harassment of women took off in reaction to the sexual assault revelations against the Hollywood film director, Harvey Weinstein. This global campaign developed from and has put new life into the feminist movement worldwide.
In India, mass rallies condemned the gang rape of Joyti Pandey in 2012 and feminist flash mobs have disrupted the moral policing operations of Hindutva fundamentalists.
In China, the arrest in 2015 of five young women preparing to sticker Beijing’s public transport against sexual violence was met with petitions signed by over two million people.
In Brazil, 30,000 black women descended on the capital in 2015 to demonstrate against sexual violence and racism. Earlier that year, the March of Margaridas brought over 50,000 rural women to the capital, Brasilia. In Argentina, feminist campaigners against domestic violence were at the forefront of protest against the government’s economic shock therapy.
In Poland, mass women’s protests forced the law and justice government to retreat from tightening of the already restrictive abortion law. Italy, Spain and Portugal saw huge marches against domestic violence and economic insecurity.
On 8 March 2017 these movements came together to put International Women’s Day back on the radical calendar with demonstrations and strikes on three continents. On International Women’s Day this year, an estimated 5.2 million women took part in what was popularly described as a two-hour “feminist strike” throughout the Spanish state, and an unknown number stayed away from work for the rest of the day.
In March 2018 the Nigeria Labour Congress also organised a march and symposium against gender based violence in the centre of Abuja.
The protest against sexual assaults on US university campuses blazed across the New York media in 2014. In January 2017, the ‘feminism of the 99%’ declared itself with the millions strong march against the Trump administration in the US.
In a chilling article published in the New York Times last December. Titled “How Tough Is It to Change a Culture of Harassment? Ask Women at Ford”, a number of women were interviewed in the piece. They recounted horrendous experiences at the assembly plants.
They described sexual harassment by workmates on the shop floor, by supervisors who demand sex for favourable shifts. They also despair at the lack of help they received when they speak out. Trade union reps have downplayed the harassment and advised them not to “cause trouble” by reporting it. Management made statements about a company anti-harassment ethos but did little on the ground to change the atmosphere.
The jobs at Ford pays well — women could earn three times what they might in retail or cleaning. So, leaving the job was not a decision any would take lightly — even if staying meant putting up with harassment.
But some refused to put up with it. After a spate of complaints from women in the 1990s led to a $22 million pay-out in the courts, Ford’s management agreed to set up awareness training at the plants. These did seem to have an effect. Sexual harassment awareness was made part of workers’ general training when they started at the company.
Things improved — until the economic crisis hit in 2008 and 700 jobs went at the assembly plant. In the climate of uncertainty, some men blamed women for “taking their jobs”. Then, when things improved after 2010 and more workers were taken on in a hurry, the company’s awareness training went out of the window.
It has taken another spate of lawsuits — and a $10 million pay-out in August 2017 — to force Ford to take the issue of harassment seriously again.
Following the publication of the article the company has sacked a number of supervisors accused of serial harassment, as well as a top executive, Raj Nair, its president for North America; for behaviour “inconsistent with the company’s code of conduct”.
The Ford case demonstrates a simple truth. Changing a culture of harassment in the workplace takes more than individuals changing their behaviour. It takes more than women being prepared to speak up. It requires structural change — or gains can be reversed.
In Nigeria, about a third of women have experienced one form of domestic violence or another and many have suffered rape or attempted rape. In the workplace, sexual harassment is a daily occurrence. Even domestic staff are not excluded from the menace; and because they are seen to have little or no voice, they are not only sexually harassed, but in many instances, raped, impregnated by their employers, and then evicted from the workplace.
Many women have faced the situation of being asked for sexual favours in return for being given a job or marks by lecturers as with the shameless Prof. Richard Akindele, who was unveiled by Ms Monica Osagie at the Obafemi Awolowo University.
Women and men should work together to challenge bullying behaviour from bosses and those in positions of power. Change won’t simply come from above — there has to be a battle in workplaces, schools and communities to ensure that harassment is challenged. Trade unions, civil society organisations and activists generally must take this up as a central campaign.
Where do women get the confidence to challenge harassment? One major source is the knowledge that you will be backed up and supported when you take a stand. #MeToo has created a moment in which greater change is possible. Working-class and youth activists must put themselves at the front of campaigns to drive back harassment wherever it appears.
Contexts which lay grounds for sexual harassment must also be identified and stamped out. For example, with some jobs particularly in the services sector, women may be expected to encourage sexual flirtation, at least, to gain clients for their bosses. This should be combated.
And there must be zero tolerance for harassment and sexism. Professor Akindele was actually not being outed for the first time at OAU, Ife. But was merely given a slap on the wrist. Female students who face harassment on our campuses should draw inspiration from the bold action of Monica Osagie, stand up as #MeToo and fight this menace.
Unions and activists in the education sector, particularly males, should give full support to and help deepen the campaign against #Sex4Marks.
Most of the time women experience sexism as individuals, from individuals — usually men. But society isn’t simply a collection of individuals wielding power over each other. We live in a class society — capitalism — which functions by a minority class which owns and controls the means of producing wealth exploiting a majority working class which has no other way to survive than by selling its labour power for a wage. The key power relations in society flow from that central antagonism. Sexual harassment is part of this.
by Tina NDI