Editor’s Note: The following essay by Dr. Susan M. Blaustein, Founder and Executive Director, WomenStrong International, discusses the transformational potential of #MeToo to empower change locally and globally.
In their remarkable new book Awakening about the global #MeToo movement, feminist scholars Rachel Vogelstein and Meighan Stone have shined a light on the courage, creativity, and resilience of women all over the world who have alchemized their pain as survivors of sexual violence into fierce, undaunted activism.
These brave women, from Brazil to Tunisia to Nigeria to Sweden and myriad places in between, have harnessed available digital technologies to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, connect with other women, sound the alarm loudly, and press for change. They’re fighting not only for victims’ safety in reporting these crimes and accountability for their perpetrators; enraged and emboldened, they’re aiming to institutionalize legal protections and disrupt the prevailing cultural and religious moraes that have long sanctioned violence against women in the first place.
The fearless advocates profiled in Awakening have had enough. Driven to redress the egregious pain and injustice each has experienced, they have deftly deployed feminist Tarana Burke’s #MeToo hashtag, belatedly gone viral in late 2017, as the avalanche of allegations unfurled against Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, to reveal their own abuse and to launch clamorous campaigns to stop violence against women and girls.
From famed Pakistani actress and singer Meesha Shafi’s gutsily outing a fellow star on Twitter for having sexually harassed and groped her, to a young Chinese computer scientist who, buoyed by #MeToo, finally posted about her abuse some 13 years earlier at the hand of her famous professor, spurring a tsunami of similar charges resulting in his firing, women across the globe are saying, TIME’S UP.
This coming together in solidarity, with its potential for movement-building and actual change, has in each case been triggered and steered by brilliant local women leaders. Heralding these and other examples as evidence of breakthrough effectiveness, Vogelstein and Stone, both at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program when the book was written, repeatedly urge donor governments and philanthropies to shift development assistance and human rights funding from the larger international development agencies into the hands of those on the ground who know best what the issues and solutions are, in their own contexts, in their own communities.
Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai agrees with this assessment of where wisdom lies and where funding needs to go: “The answer is local leaders,” this fierce young woman survivor insists. “They are best placed to understand the challenges in their communities and develop solutions that work.”
This has always been our approach at WomenStrong International: to trust local women leaders, who know best what they need in order to thrive. We currently support 18 local women-led non-profits across the globe, working in the areas of girls’ education, women’s health, economic security, and preventing violence against women and girls. Our partners working to stop violence, from Cambodia to Kenya and Rwanda to Mexico to Atlanta to Brooklyn, focus on protecting women and girls in low-income urban communities and engaging men and boys, to help them reframe their attitudes and behaviors.
Thanks to digital technologies, we have been able to convene our grantee partners in a Learning Lab, where they are able to come together, share their approaches and findings, learn from each other, and devise collective advocacy plans. In so doing, they are honing their strategies and building a sense of solidarity and a community of informed practice.
As Awakening makes so clear, despite the geopolitical and sociocultural differences in contexts and circumstances, the challenges facing women and girls are the same across the globe: deeply entrenched traditional systems and practices have long sanctioned not only violence against women, but also the suppression of their voices, their rights, and their access to health care, education, public goods and services, and opportunity.
Even those WomenStrong partners not explicitly focused on violence prevention, as in Afghanistan, Malawi, Uganda, Guatemala, and the United States, are grappling with how to keep safe the girls and women with whom they work, and how best to engage their brothers and husbands and fathers, as allies and protectors. The sense of community and the mutual learning that has developed among the courageous women celebrated in Awakening, like the peer-to-peer learning that takes place in our Learning Lab, has the potential to result in change that will not only protect local girls and women by changing the dynamics in their communities, but that can lead to the development of regional, national, and international policies, legislation, and systems that will protect women and girls far more broadly.
For Vogelstein, now leading the global portfolio at the White House Council for Gender Equality; for Stone, still at the Council on Foreign Relations; and for the rest of us, a lot of work remains, to build the world we would like to see. The authors boldly call for a global “women’s power agenda,” consisting of powerful “building blocks” they call the “Five Rs:” redress for those harmed; legal reform that could make accountability possible; women’s equal representation in all aspects of public life, a just “allocation of resources,” and a serious recalibration of norms that have permitted the perpetuation of sexual abuse and the suffocating constraints on women’s power and participation in public and private life.
It’s a valorous agenda, for sure; yet each hard-won victory propels us to continue the work. Justice was finally delivered late last month for decades of serial crimes committed by musician R. Kelly, and weeks earlier, e-commerce giant Alibaba Group finally moved to fire an employee when a woman’s charges of rape went viral online, after roundly ignoring her allegations for months on end.
What is clear, as Vogelstein and Stone so compellingly demonstrate, is the strength and sisterhood women have taken in each others’ struggles and each others’ victories. By retelling their stories and reinforcing the magnetism now binding these brave survivors across vastly different cultures and geographies, the authors have moved and mobilized their readers, giving us the chance to celebrate and learn from these strong women’s courage, tenacity, and power, and to carry forward the fight.