Since October 2017, more than 1 million women worldwide have shared experiences and solidarity with their sisters under the banner of #MeToo. They are saying that enough is enough. For too long, women have experienced violence in their homes, in public spaces and at work. For too long, this abuse has been normalized, women’s voices have been silenced and their stories disbelieved. For too long, perpetrators have not faced consequences.
It is estimated that there are 1 billion women worldwide living with the pain caused by gender-based violence. These women do not always go to the authorities to file formal reports, but the data that the World Health Organization helped UN-Women gather from dentists, surgeons, mental health specialists, emergency rooms and morgues illustrates how violence against women is a global health crisis. We cannot allow this to continue for another generation.
We are at a tipping point, a moment we must grab with both hands: the #TimeIsNow. To amplify this message of solidarity and strength, Hollywood stars with many millions of social media followers around the world are partnering in their #TimesUp movement with women and girls from rural areas, students, civil society activists and others whose voices have been long ignored. In Africa, activists and survivors are speaking out against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. They are led by such women as Jaha Dukureh, the UN-Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa on FGM and Ending Child Marriage. In Latin America, women have taken to the streets to protest the murder of human rights activist Marielle Franco and to stand up against femicide through the “Ni una menos”, “not one less”, campaign. In Sweden, an open letter from hundreds of actors sharing their testimonies and demanding zero tolerance of harassment led to thousands of women across all industries1 echoing those appeals.
This moment has taught us two vital lessons. First and foremost, it has shown the strength of solidarity and sisterhood. The sheer volume of women adding their voices to the conversation, saying “I hear you, I understand you, I believe you”, has enabled them to find courage. Providing women with a chance to unburden painful experiences, and ultimately find relief, serves as collective therapy that is free and open to all. Women everywhere can say “me too” to someone else, whether that means “it happened to me” or simply “I believe you.” Secondly, it has created critical momentum for accountability and tackling impunity. Until now, this has been elusive, with powerful people able to commit serial offenses without consequences. We need to see the #MeToo movement as a case study proving that all are equal before the law. The campaign must be scaled up even further, ensuring that those responsible for making laws and holding elected positions in countries across the globe have a way of fighting impunity that works. At UN-Women, we are using our global footprint to support this amplification of the #MeToo movement so that no one is left behind.
In this regard, it is important that the #MeToo movement battle discrimination, which affects all kinds of people, by taking into account the diverse experiences of LGBTQI persons, women with disabilities, widows, women of colour, indigenous women and other marginalized groups. Just as the 2030 Agenda cannot be achieved without gender equality, violence against women and girls cannot be eliminated without an intersectional approach that incorporates research, policymaking, adequate funding and activism.
A key avenue for fighting discrimination is addressing violence against women, including sexual harassment in the workplace. Women’s economic empowerment is crucial for their full participation in society. The global spread of the #TimesUp, #MeToo and other such movements stems from working women demanding that they be heard and that they be safe in their places of work. Their stories have brought to light cases of sexual violence, harassment and abuse affecting women across all industries, in the private and public sectors, and in formal and informal economies. The burden of ending such harassment should not fall exclusively upon survivors; it must be the responsibility of supervisors, shareholders, human resource personnel and customers alike. Harassment will end only when all of us take responsibility and work together in a joined-up manner.
One way to achieve this is through the new European Union-United Nations Spotlight Initiative, which builds on the strength and experience of diverse partners to direct comprehensive efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls across Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Pacific and the Caribbean. With an initial contribution of EUR 500 million by the European Union over five years, the initiative will channel resources into action to strengthen legislation, policies, institutions, prevention, services and data to stop violence and advance gender equality.
Within the United Nations system, we must also walk the talk. Promoting gender equality in the workplace begins within our own United Nations institutions. The Secretary-General of the United Nations has made clear his commitment to a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, introducing a five-point plan intended to address the issue within the system. At UN-Women, I have just appointed Purna Sen, our Director of Policy Division, to a newly created special post as Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Addressing Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination. This will ensure survivor-focused approaches, placing women’s experiences at the heart of the work on sexual harassment and helping drive decisive actions to stop it.
We also strongly support the work of civil society and women’s organizations around the world, including through the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, which for more than 20 years has been the largest fund in the world dedicated to ending violence against women and girls. Wherever we work around the world, we are partnering with civil society, the largest and longest-serving group of allies supporting our agenda.
Ending sexual abuse and harassment is also the responsibility of men. While women are taking responsibility for their sisters’ human rights, men must also take responsibility for the actions of their brothers. The #TimeIsNow for men and boys to listen to women and girls, and to work with them to dismantle negative social norms and stereotypes. We need men to take action at work and at home, to call out violence and harassment, and to change the way they talk about and treat women.
UN-Women’s HeForShe movement is galvanizing men and boys in the fight for gender equality by asking them to commit to champion women’s rights and redefine masculinity. So far, almost 1.3 million men worldwide, including Heads of State, top executives and even the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, have made the commitment to play their part. The “MeToo” era demands that we continue to push forward. We need a rising tide of male feminists to join us in forming a solid, unbreakable resistance movement.
In the nineteenth century, people around the world fought and defeated slavery. In the twentieth century, the struggle against racism and colonialism awoke the world’s conscience again. The great challenge of the twenty-first century is embodied in the struggle against sexism, gender-based violence and all forms of oppression of women.
When I think of these struggles, and when I feel frustrated by the slow pace of change, I often take comfort in the words of Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Achieving Planet 50-50 by 2030 will seem impossible until men join women in their fight for equality in every sphere of life. When we all work together in solidarity—men and women, movie stars and farm workers, managers and staff, citizens and political leaders—only then will we accomplish the impossible.
*Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women.
This article was first published in UNChronicle, August 2018