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MeToo: Is the onus on only women to speak up against sexual abuse and exploitation?

By on March 8, 2018

Manager Quality Improvement and Quality of Life (MNCH & NCD), at the Karnataka Health Promotion Trust, Bangalore, India

Twenty years after the Beijing declaration and platform of action on gender equality as a basic human right, the fight for gender equality continues, and “despite progress, societies are still failing women in relation to health, most acutely in poor countries and among the poorest women in all countries.” A parallel can be drawn with the global “progress” of primary healthcare, since the Alma Ata declaration which took place 40 years ago! Societal power dynamics have played a key role in blocking progress in the fight for gender equality, as was the case for global health stakeholders in relation to PHC.

The recent MeToo campaign against sexual abuse and exploitation which went viral, proves that even in the well-to-do societies, women are not always treated equally. With people from many countries across the world supporting the movement, it has become one of the most successful social media campaigns of our time, and many cases of sexual harassment and exploitation have emerged. The majority concerns the media and entertainment sector, and includes allegations against powerful people like Trump and well-known scientists like RK Pachauri. In many of the cases that have come to light, famous (now infamous) personalities have been sanctioned financially, legally or simply through societal reprobation. The very long list of people MeToo has affected, includes well-known figures like Javier Palomarez and billionaire Steve Wynn, although many of the accused have denied the allegations.

However, we cannot deny that the MeToo campaign itself runs into gender imbalance territory, with almost all the voices that we have heard being feminine voices; the so called “silence breakers” for example, are all women. It almost feels as if men do not have anything to contribute to the campaign. This is not unusual, as invariably most campaigns for gender equality tend to be about women’s equality (this is of course natural, as women have traditionally being the “disadvantaged” gender in most societies), and the fight is often left only to women. Be it Hollywood in the west or Bollywood in the east, the MeToo campaign speaks out mainly against cases of women’s harassment by men, and invariably these allegations come from women.

Speaking out against sexual harassment seems to be very difficult for men, for example gathering male voices even within academic circles, which are open and flexible (the Emerging Voices for instance), to speak up and write about the issue is a challenge. There’s a certain reluctance to do so, and not just on International Women’s Day (which would be understandable). Reasons for this could include the fear of getting thrashed by women’s groups for one reason or the other (men wearing black at the Golden Globe awards this year in support of Time’s Up movement and the reaction) or just a perception that the MeToo campaign is a feminist concept and that is better handled by women. Although some men can defend themselves from allegations of “arm folding”, by saying that they have tried to do their part for the movement, with campaigns such as #Askmoreofhim campaign in support #MeToo, these efforts have remained very minimal, local and less vocal.

Although the current campaign about exposing and punishing people who sexually abuse and/or exploit others is more than needed, in my opinion, through MeToo we have an opportunity to give more attention to even bigger issues like equality for women. A good example is India, where despite the existence of strong women rights movements in recent years, hardly anything has changed both in terms of sexual harassment and general attitudes. The country has many cases of girl feticide, “unwanted” girls, perinatal maternal deaths because of the unimportance of women’s health in families, unequal pay for equal jobs, fewer women in leadership roles and poor representation in global events. These cases of course span many sectors such as: health, education, sports, media, movies and politics. Incidents that occur in the movie and media industry come to light more easily, for the obvious reason that selling stories about the fall from grace of powerful men is lucrative. However, it is high time MeToo expands to include the struggles of women fighting for equality in other sectors, and in other more difficult settings. That is starting to happen, but not fast enough.

The obvious solution is to use MeToo as a vehicle for campaigning for other women’s rights issues. It should include strategies for changing societal attitudes, increasing the numbers of women in leadership positions, and improving representation and participation in decision-making processes from the global level to the local level. We also need strategies to help everyone understand that decisions around women’s health and well-being should depend upon their preferences, and these should be supported by men.

So, on this International Women’s Day, let us join hands, both women and men, to make the fight for real gender equality, not just a fight fought by women! Many cases of sexual misconduct have already surfaced in celebrity circles, since MeToo went viral in October last year. We do not want another Weinstein, but we also do not want women like Milano, Thurman, Meryl Streep, and a few outliers in Bollywood to feel that they are lone combatants in the fight against sexual abuse and exploitation. Instead, the problem must be eradicated both in celebrity circles and in normal everyday societies, and to do this, the urgent  participation of men as brothers, husbands, fathers, and friends is required. Men should become allies in the global fight for gender equality, they should be more vocal in public forums, preferably without self-censoring or fear of being “Damonized”, and they should support and promote campaigns like MeToo!

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