For most of history, “anonymous” was a woman. In recent years, this also has been the case for many accounts of sexual harassment and abuse. There is a lot of shame and blame when women speak out, so when they decide to do so, it can be easier to do it anonymously.
As a gender rights activist who works to encourage women to share their stories, it is a thrill to see Time’s Person of the Year named as The Silence Breakers to recognize the courage of the brave women who have come forward and shared their personal stories of sexual harassment in the workplace by powerful men.
It started in October with actress Alyssa Milano inviting women to share their experiences of sexual harassment on social media using the hashtag #MeToo, a hashtag first used by Tarana Burke over 10 years ago. While this was not the first time a hashtag has been used in this way, surprisingly, this time, the campaign really took off.
#MeToo kicked off a chain reaction with tens of thousands of women naming the men who had abused their power and taken advantage of the women’s vulnerabilities at the workplace. This in turn forced organisations to act — dropping the men from their management or boards or getting them to resign.
Now women everywhere feel that they have a voice and that their stories can result in accountability being taken.
The question is why has it taken this long?
Though sexual violence is a global pandemic, most women and girls are afraid to share their stories and this results in the “invisibility” of the issue where the official statistics do not reflect the true nature and size of the problem. In many social contexts, women and girls feel the pressure to stay silent, lest they bring shame upon themselves and their families or there is fear in the police’s insensitive behaviour and the lengthy judicial process. This is one kind of crime, where the onus is on the victim to provide proof of “good behaviour” and often relive her experience justifying her actions, whilst the perpetrator gets away scot-free.
But not anymore.
Now the tide has turned and as it becomes more acceptable to do so, more women are demanding accountability for men’s misuse of power and positions. It is as though a movement of sisterhood is spreading around the world, where it is no longer a single voice or a single story.
And men are speaking up about it too. I was also heartened by Billy Bush’s op-ed in the New York Times clearly voicing his support for the women who have accused US President Donald Trump of sexual harassment.
We need more men to acknowledge that it is a crime, call out their male friends when they witness it happening and openly offer support to the women and girls experiencing it
Organisations also have a role to play. They can help by ensuring their work cultures are not disrespectful, discriminatory or hostile to women and other minorities; creating transparent policies that are inclusive and safe; and treating people equally. When this occurs, we can hope that more women can truly feel comfortable to achieve their true potential.
The silence is difficult to break but it must be broken to disrupt the status quo. Thank you, Time for taking the lead in acknowledging bravery it takes to speak out.
ALSO READ: Time Magazine is Celebrating our Stand on Sexual Harassment, and So Should We