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Do you remember Nafissatou Diallo? Africa and its forgotten 'MeToo' moment.

Summary: How many remember the #MeToo moment of 14 May 2011? On this day, Nafissatou Diallo's routine was no different to her normal daily chores. The hardworking Senegalese immigrant was working as a housekeeper at the upscale Sofitel Hotel in New York. The young single mother had left Senegal to pursue the 'American dream' -- until she encountered the nightmare this day became.

On this day, Nafissatou was cleaning one of the rooms whose guest was one of the most promi- nent people in the world. What hap- pened next was horrifying. While she went about doing her job, the elderly, "honourable" guest emerged from one of the rooms and stood in front of her stark naked, taunting her, flashing his nakedness and demanding sexual fa- vours of her. The man was none other than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the then boss of the International Mon- etary Fund (IMF). Nafissatou fled the room shattered and terrified.

What followed was an act of great courage: this simple African immi- grant from Senegal decided to report the actions of the high-profile man to the police, and soon the tale became one of the biggest news stories of the time. Nafissatou endured strong de- nials from the powerful Frenchman, who accused her of seducing him in- stead, and that she did so to extract money from him.

Nafissatou did not give up even when her claims of sexual assault were dismissed, and continued to pursue the issue with dignity and mettle, until an undisclosed six-figure civil suit settlement was made.

Strauss-Kahn, who was even tipped to be the next French presi- dent, would later fall from grace fast and hard, sacked as IMF boss as more accusations of predatory sexual behav- iour were revealed by other women, including allegations of being involved in the running of a prostitution ring in France.

I chose to start this piece with the sto- ry of Nafissatou because of her uncom- mon courage and her relentless quest for justice despite her ordinary status. It aptly captures the power relationship in most sexual abuse cases. The aggres- sor is often times a man of power and means.

Nafissatou's courage back then, and even now, is inspirational. The key les- son she teaches us is that every woman deserves respect regardless of her race, gender, status and physical attributes. It also teaches us to fiercely protect our right to say NO and to report any violation no matter how powerful the perpetrator may be.

Nafissatou, unknown to her, was among the forerunners to a growing movement of women who are rising up to speak out against sexual abuse. Seven years on from this incident, reports of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men have rapidly gained prominence -- albeit more so in the western world, Hollywood in particu- lar.

The disgraced Hollywood direc- tor, Harvey Weinstein, is a celebrity case in point -- accused by numerous women, including our very own Lu- pita Nyong'o -- of being a relentless sexual predator. Weinstein allegedly used his power over the years to prey on young, innocent upcoming ac- tresses with promises that he would open doors for them through his blockbuster movies and connections.

Money, power and sex

What then is sexual abuse? Accord- ing to the Psychology Today online mag- azine, despite its name sexual abuse is more about power than it is about sex. Although the touch may be sex- ual, the words intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the mo- tivation stems from the perpetrator's need for dominance and control.

The same magazine goes further and adds that although the vast ma- jority of #MeToo stories describe occurrences within the family, with a classmate, a man on the street, in a bar or at a party -- where men as- sert power bestowed on them by mere virtue of them being men -- the events that propelled the recent out- cry involve powerful, prominent men who use their positions and the perks of their power to seduce, coerce, ma- nipulate, and attack.

These men have what their victims,

who are in less powerful positions, want and need: a job, good grades, a promotion, a recommendation, an au- dition, a role in a movie, a place close to the centre of power. They confuse and control by dangling enticements with one hand and wielding threats, implied or explicit, with the other. Weinstein's actions led to the height- ening of the #MeToo movement.

But Weinstein stands in a long line of powerful men who display ar- rogance and blatant disrespect for women's rights and dignity. Who can forget President Donald Trump's brag about kissing women without their consent, grabbing at their genitals? "When you're a star, they let you do it," he bragged in the now infamous 2016 'locker room talk' tape -- a month before his election as the leader of the so-called 'free world'.

A culture of silence

Though Hollywood female celebrities have given the #MeToo movement unprecedented impetus, it must be noted that the cries of sexually abused women go beyond Hollywood and permeate every sector of modern soci- ety -- everywhere in the world. And in Africa it's deep-rooted in secrecy and taboo.

A new study by the Inter-Parlia- mentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, for instance, shows that acts of sexism, abuse and violence against women are widespread in parliaments across Europe. The findings reveal that 85 per cent of women MPs have suffered from psychological violence in parlia- ment. The report further adds that women MPs under 40 are more likely to be harassed; female parliamentary staff endure more sexual violence than female MPs; and the majority of par- liaments don't have mechanisms to en- able women to speak out.

Women victims who have chosen to share their experiences say that such abuse changed their lives, blighted their confidence and shattered their innocence. It led them down a de- structive road of deep depression and shame. This has negatively affected how such women consequently live, love and relate, even with their chil- dren.

The recent testimony of Dr Chris- tine Blasey Ford against the US Su- preme Court Justice nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, painted a powerful pic- ture of a victim's wounds. This ac- complished woman's testimony as giv- en to the US Senate showed a woman deeply scarred. Memories of an event that had happened decades ago were still raw and painful. Sadly, whenever such women come up, they are often condemned to endure a public trial premised upon their looks, personality and character. No one believes them. This is perhaps the key reason why most victims continue to perpetrate a culture of silence, choosing to pri- vately nurse their scars. Kavanaugh is now a Supreme Court Judge.

It is no small matter when a wom- an's right to shine is replaced by paralysing shame. Healthy, confident women are the strong fabric upon which any society is built and sus- tained.

What makes the #MeToo move- ment so powerful is that it has given victims a voice and the courage to speak out. It is finally providing a powerful avenue and a safe space for victims to share, seek support and find real healing. Powerful male perpetra- tors are now shifting uneasily in their seats, being forced to confront their actions for the first time.

Perhaps the most telling sign that 'Time Is Up' (another Hollywood nar- rative that has gained currency) has been the recent incarceration of the once loved and admired black enter- tainment icon, Bill Cosby. Cosby had allegedly enjoyed decades of sexual predatory behaviour lacing the drinks of women he invited to his home then sexually violating them. No one ever thought that the celebrated 81-year- old would face jail time, yet he is. Andrea Constand's case against him for sexually assaulting her after lacing her drink back in 2004 has been his undoing.

Is it time to celebrate yet, NAW wonders? Are the shackles really bro- ken amongst our Sisters of colour in Africa and the diaspora? The #MeToo movement has been a powerful vehicle and a call to action in the USA but such movements or campaigns remain largely absent in Africa.

Stories from Africa continue to show powerful African men abusing young women sexually in exchange for favours that are never delivered, then kicking them to the kerb, even death. Stories also abound in slums and rural areas in Africa where a cul- ture of rampant abuse continues un- abated.

A girl hitting puberty in such parts of Africa is viewed as an invitation by male teachers, neighbours, relatives, elders and other men in authority. She is violated many a time, learning to live with a deep sense of shame and a devalued sense of self-worth. She is taught early on that men are just like that and a woman must learn to en- dure.

African traditional patriarchal cul- tures further compound the problem. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is the presence of cultures that see girls as young as 12 years of age mar- ried off to elderly men as a means to support their families.

#WeToo -- speaking for the voiceless

Who will speak for these faceless, voiceless, powerless, abused girls?

Oprah Winfrey's impassioned words at the 2018 Golden Globes struck a deep chord, reminding us that sexual abuse at the hands of powerful perpetrators is still alive and well. She eloquently shared in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B DeMille Life- time Achievement Award as follows: "They're the women whose names we'll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they're in academia and engineering and medicine and science. They're part of the world of tech and politics and business. They're our athletes in the Olym- pics and they're our soldiers in the military." The #MeToo movement has shown us all the power of raised collective voices from women cutting across race, gender, age and status in society. Sisters who boldly condemn the sexual violation of women are causing ripples in the socio-legal en- vironment and beginning to shift the power balance.

Is it time for a similar collective movement in Africa? How, you may ask? It all begins with paying attention and speaking truth to power. Speak to girls and women in your sphere of in- fluence, reminding them that they are beautiful, worthy, powerful, and have the right to speak up against sexual abuse, refuse to be victims and report such abuse.

Difficult conversations begin with shared time and acceptance devoid of judgement. Begin by sharing lessons from the story of brave Nafissatou Di- allo.

If you have been a victim of sex- ual abuse at the hands of a powerful male perpetrator, break the culture of silence, shatter the shame and share your story. Your voice will protect the next victim by exposing the perpetra- tor. Herein lies true power.

Don't forget to speak to the boys, too. They become the next male per- petrators if left un-mentored.


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Publication:New African Woman
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Nov 30, 2018
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