As #MeToo moves across the world, is Nigeria next?
In October last year, multiple accusations of sexual assault and misconduct were leveled at Hollywood movie producer, Harvey Weinstein. The world was shocked by the scale of the allegations and the alleged intricate web of mechanisms used by the producer to protect himself and to keep his victims silent.
In the aftermath, more people have stepped forward and dozens of powerful men across a number of industries have been accused of harassment, assault and misconduct. Condemnation of the accused has been swift; careers have ended and disgrace has been public. The allegations have also sparked a global conversation about consent and sexual conduct and the hashtag #MeToo becoming part of the mainstream.
The phrase was initially coined by activist Tarana Burke ten years ago who launched the movement to support women who had survived sexual assault, years later the phrase has become an integral part of a push against misconduct. The wave of accusations coupled with the response has been described as a watershed moment. As well as #MeToo, other initiatives against sexual assault have been propelled into the mainstream, such as #TimesUp.
In December, ‘The Silence Breakers,’ survivors who came forward with their stories of sexual assault, were named as Time magazine’s Person of the Year and more and more men and women continue to come forward with their stories.
Misconduct has been a global issue long before the world turned a spotlight on it. In Nigeria, many people have likely heard or read one story. There’s hardly a day that goes by where there isn’t something on the news, in the newspapers or on the blogs indicating the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct in our society; at universities, at work, in the home, in public spaces; from markets to concerts. But as many parts of the world seem ready to embrace a new reality with regard to sexual assault, it could be argued that the #MeToo movement has yet to take hold in Nigeria.
Despite a trickle of recent reports exposing alleged sexual misconduct in Nigeria, there hasn’t yet been the shocking tidal wave of accusations in Nigeria as there has been abroad. Survivors are still not comfortable enough to come forward.
Arguably, in any part of the world the survivor of misconduct has everything to lose and little or nothing to gain when coming forward to share their story. If the allegations are leveled at someone in a position of power, the scales are tipped against them further, as Harvey Weinstein proved with his alleged machine to keep his accusers silent.
There are numerous reasons survivors do not come forward; the fear of not being believed, of being placed under undue scrutiny, shame, and so on.In Nigeria these worries are exacerbated due to cultural expectations often bolstered by traditional and religious beliefs. Nigeria is a deeply patriarchal society and for women the onus is on them to ‘guard themselves’ from situations where sexual conduct may occur by ‘behaving appropriately.’ Women are blamed and shamed for what happens to them, it’s not uncommon to read reports about harassment and see comments blaming the woman because of ‘how she dressed’ or ‘how she carried herself.’
For men, the stigma and shame, coupled with cultural notions of masculinity, are a heavy burden. In addition, the legal system is not on the side of survivors.
The legal system is notoriously slow and corrupt. In 2015 it was widely reported that Nigeria only had 18 recorded rape convictions in its entire legal history. In contrast, last year the Mirabel Sexual Assault Referral Centre, which has been open since 2013, revealed it had seen more than 2,000 patients since its doors opened and the numbers were increasing. Marital rape is not considered a crime in Nigeria. Trust between the public and the police is low, particularly with crimes of this nature, an additional contributing factor to the low reporting rate.
But there are signs that a shift, however small, is taking place, perhaps not in survivors coming forward but in attitudes.Last year’s Big Brother Nigeria sparked a widespread debate about the nature of consent, when contestant Ekemini Ekerette, known as Kemen, was kicked off the reality show for allegedly touching another contestant while she slept.
Conversations about the incident and the aftermath raged for days and revealed some of the worrying views held by young people about sexual misconduct, however some sought to use it as a teachable moment and the popular ‘Tea as Consent’ video was shared widely to further try and educate people. In 2015 TW magazine said ‘You could never hold a SlutWalk in Nigeria,’ in December 2017 La Femme Foundation did just that.
Due to the current magnitude of the #MeToo movement, it’s easy to think that it happened overnight, but the movement started a decade ago. There are several hurdles Nigeria must overcome, many of which are unique to the environment and will likely take many years to deconstruct, but as attitudes continue to shift, conversations about the nature of consent and misconduct continue to be heard and initiatives continue to rise up, one can only hope the country is moving in the right direction.
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