As fallout from the Harvey Weinstein saga continues to claim more powerful names in the West, so has it heightened international attention about women and girls’ vulnerability to sexual predation.
Likewise, concern by celebrity fathers, such as former US President Barrack Obama, means that the parental apprehension is not just for the lowly among us parents of daughters.
Without mentioning that his daughter Malia once interned for Weinstein’s film company, Obama and his wife Michelle’s disgust cut to the quick. “Any man who demeans and degrades women in such fashion needs to be condemned and held accountable, regardless of wealth or status.”
Then Lupita Nyong’o, the award winning Kenyan actress, gave it a face East Africans can easily identify with in her first-person narration in the widely quoted New York Times’ article about her encounters with Weinstein.
“I have felt sick in the pit of my stomach,” she wrote. “I have felt such a flare of rage that [my experience] was not a unique incident with me, but rather part of a sinister pattern of behaviour.”
As more women continue to add to the dozens who already accuse powerful movie mogul, the allegations against him are unusual only in the quality bestowed by his status, not in kind.
Sexual harassment – from lewd or unwanted sexual remarks and touching to rape – is an everyday occurrence for women and girls around the world in urban and rural areas, in the West as in Africa. It is everywhere – on the streets, in schools and colleges, workplaces and matatu’s (public transport).
By coming out when she did six years after her first encounter with Weinstein, Lupita’s status enabled her give a personal voice to the power of coming out. But as one commentator pointed out, for women speaking up about their experiences with harassment and assault, being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another.
However, to paraphrase the commentator, there are still huge swaths of women – the poor, the queer, the undocumented – who can’t count on the security that feminism has conferred on its wealthier, celebrity adherents, or trust that their victimisation would even become news.
Often faced with the choice between putting food on the table and speaking out on harassment, not many have the courage to be heard, let alone the power to be free.
Their only recourse is the unceasing efforts that must continue to unlock the socio-economic or cultural binds that allow “the conspiracy of silence” by having men and women speak out for our societies to be sufficiently provoked to do something about it.
The Economist reminds us that some of the key elements to tackling the problem are power, impunity and silence: power, which is misused by predatory men; impunity, as those who could call a halt do not; and silence, as witnesses look away and victims’ fear that speaking up will harm their careers or reputations.
Still, it must begin with understanding the extent of the problem, even as it must begin with the local before we think global.
A gender-based violence prevention and response meeting in Kigali last week was informed how low reporting of sexual abuse by teens in the country was hampering efforts to curb the problem.
Without the benefit of an existing nationwide survey to chart the extent of the abuse, the only indication as to the scope of the problem could only be gleaned from official figures where more than 17,000 girls aged between 16-19 years fell victim to early or unwanted pregnancies in 2016.
Yet this is not a Rwandan limitation, it is more an illumination of the same shortcoming across East Africa and the continent, as well as the world, despite there being laws to deal with gender-based violence even against women who goad men with sex.
According to The Economist, though most rich countries ban sexual harassment at work as is the case locally, half of all women and a tenth of men in the West say they have suffered it at some point; hardly any make formal complaints.
As a parent of daughters, however, the Weinstein saga makes it of particular interest. Thus, for some of us, the moral of Lupita’s story must be how imbued she was with values of self-worth to have been able to rebuff Weinstein’s advances at her most vulnerable beginning when she was a student and aspiring actress.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.