Localizing the Global Me Too Movement

Casagh-
via the Coalition Against Sexual Abuse Ghana.

As a woman and a feminist, I have reservations about the "Me Too" movement, which originates in the US. It is a particular type of feminist campaign that makes sense within the context of the US today, facing the resurgence of anti-feminist, right-wing ideologies and Christian fundamentalism. It is timely and important, even more so given the misogynistic leadership in the White House today. It is a much-needed response from not only women across races and classes in the US but also women worldwide.

There is, however, the danger that the Me Too movement will be transplanted wholesale outside of the US as the predominant feminist cause. Each country, region, or place must have its own indigenous women-led movement against gender discrimination and gender-based violence that speaks to the realities of the communities in question. In other words, the Me Too movement can serve as an inspiration and an ally but every place must develop its own feminist movement that fights for gender equality, women's emancipation, and against gender-based domination and violence. Perpetuating Me Too as the brand name of a mass movement smacks of a “softer” version of US hegemony that extends itself into the fabric of women's movements elsewhere. It is more important for women's movements around the world to define for ourselves the kind of movement against gender discrimination and violence we want, and for our movements to take into account our historical, political, economic, and socio-cultural realities. There is no “one size fits all” type of movement for women's rights.

For instance, in Ghana, the problem of schoolmasters, teachers, and male students impregnating the female students (at primary and secondary, as well as upper-secondary levels) must be addressed urgently. These young pregnant women most often have to stop school. Teachers remain in their posts and the male schoolmates can continue their studies but these young mothers, many of whom are minors, have their future curtailed. That is why a home-grown movement calling for awareness-raising, education, and the reporting of such cases, the Coalition Against Sexual Abuse Ghana, is no less significant than the global Me Too movement.

Bearing in mind that Ghana’s legal age of consent is sixteen years old, many of these junior and senior high school girls have been forced or coerced into having sex with the men or boys who impregnated them. There are, however, also cases in which the girls and women did engage in consensual sex, necessitating a more complex discussion on the social, economic, political exigencies informing their decisions — in short, an array of structural factors peculiar to the Ghanaian society.

The most notable case involves a headmaster caught on tape having sex with his sixteen-year-old student. The video quickly went viral after the girl’s mobile phone got into the wrong hands. It became the talk of town, prompting more questions than answers. For instance, why is it acceptable to share such videos on social media, without any sensitivity to the girl’s privacy? What are the ethical and moral underpinnings in this hyper-social media age, which condones and promotes the “Peeping Tom” syndrome? 

Whether rape or consensual sex, it is often the female student who suffers the consequences. They quit school when they become pregnant and many have difficulties returning after their babies are born, due to stigma and lack of childcare facilities. Girls who can return to school after their pregnancy tend to have families who are supportive or are financially able to care for both mother and child. In the village where I live, there is a girl who became pregnant at fifteen years old, and the father of her daughter is her teacher. She did not return to school after her delivery. Selling homemade food with her baby on her back, she walks through villages and towns to support herself instead.  

The Ghanaian authorities have initiated some public education campaigns to address this problem, but it is not enough. The state has commissioned short TV sketches, broadcast on official TV, to educate students on how they should respond when they encounter such cases. Much more needs to be done. Moreover, sexual abuse of girls and women in Ghana is not limited to schools. It happens within families, as well as in communities. Take for instance, a recent well-known case of abduction and rape of a seventeen-year-old girl by a local prince who is almost thrice her age. She was about to take her final examination to progress to Senior High School when local thugs kidnapped her from her home. In protest, fellow students marched through the streets to demand for her release. Due to the widespread pushback from the community, the victim was finally rescued and the prince was put behind bars.

The outcomes of sexual abuse and gender-based violence in Ghana may not seem vastly different from those addressed by Me Too. Given the strong ties that bind Ghanaian families and communities, however, it will have to be framed as more of a "Us Too" than a "Me Too." The African concept of community — “I am because we are” — is important in building a social movement that can represent and include the diverse cultures and peoples of this vast continent. Nobody is a “standalone” individual in Ghana, everyone is related to someone. Hence, any actions taken in response to sexual violence and abuse must take into consideration its impact on the extended family and the wider community. Conversely, the latter’s response can profoundly influence the handling of the cases and their outcomes as well.

In Ghana, there are male allies who want to be part of the movement, but their approach may seem counterintuitive to western sensibilities that measure women's liberation primarily by independence from men. It is worth rethinking how women’s autonomy, subjectivity, and identity should be defined and understood in the African context. Instead of individualism and divisiveness, the Ghanaian approach prefers social cohesiveness, unity, and solidarity. 

Having said that, however, a global movement against sexual abuse of women must be women-led. And it should be inclusive across class and race, as well as sexual orientations. Currently, sex workers' voices are left out of the Me Too movement even though sex workers of all genders are vulnerable to workplace violence due to the nature of their work and the stigma attached to it. Not to mention that the criminalization of many forms of sex work or sex-related work has left workers in this sector without the possibility of redress. Very often, the perpetrators of such abuse, violence, and harassment are the law enforcers themselves. This is very much the case in Ghana.

Further, the voices of working-class women are often missing in the global Me Too campaign, even though these women face violence at home and in their workplaces. Due to the insecurity of their jobs — often temporary and low-pay — it is difficult for these women to fight against unfair labor practices and workplace victimization. When forced to choose between “bread” and “dignity,” many women may choose “bread” for the sake of holding their families and loved ones together.

For Ghana, the Me Too movement has so far been limited to cyberspace. As such, it appears to speak to — as and emanate from — a select class of professional, elite, and educated women in Ghana. This movement is not reaching out to the majority of working class women who speak a different language (literally and figuratively) and with different realities and experiences. Many poor, working class women in Accra, Ghana’s capital city, for instance, sleep in open spaces and in open markets at night where they vulnerable to abuse and rape.

We do not want a women's movement that fights for gender equality that is at the same time indifferent to or even dismissive of the struggles of economic, racial and sexual minorities. The movement should not privilege the dominant, mainstream women in any society. In the case of Ghana and Africa at large, this means including the voices, needs, and the realities of migrant women workers, migrant spouses, members of the LGBTQ community, poor, and working-class women. The onus is on the socially dominant (cisgender, straight) women to give space and recognition to minorities within the movement. The movement should be a unifying force across gender, race, class and religion, not the mouthpiece of an elite minority.

We should also be careful not to differentiate between the “good” and “bad” women in such a movement. The dominant discourse has so far centered on the so-called “good women” who are morally or sexually beyond reproach and therefore deserve social support when they “come out” as survivors, while women who are seen to have transgressed social and gender norms are treated as less deserving. Worse still, they are even suspected of being complicit to the crimes committed against them.

The same dynamic can be seen in Ghana. Take, for example, the uproar created by a recent CNN interview with Moesha Bodoung, a young socialite-model-entertainer who openly admitted that she dates a married man who already has a mistress and several other lovers, in order to maintain her lifestyle. According to her, the Ghanaian economy is so bad that she cannot find a job that can allow her to rent a house and own a car, despite being a graduate of the University of Ghana, the country’s top school.

Instead of questioning why the Ghanaian economy is so bad and how it can be fixed, or why such an economy allows some men to amass such disproportionate amount of wealth that they can maintain lavishly polygamist lifestyles, Bodoung was heavily criticized and shamed on social media. Ghanaian women and men are deeply divided in this issue. In the end, she had to apologize to the nation for “shaming” the “hardworking Ghanaian women.” Yet, Bodoung’s reality is not a minority in Ghana.

The reference to “hardworking Ghanaian women” is telling. In the end, it is “national pride” and mainstream values that normalize bourgeois, heterosexual family and gender relations that prevent the debate from progressing to a more nuanced terrain and to honestly acknowledge the many pertinent issues confronted by Ghanaians today; socially, economically, and politically.

My student shared a similar story. His mother owns a shop in an affluent gold mining city in Ghana. She fired her shop assistant for dating her customers. Why are women made to be the sole bearers of social morality and held personally responsible for sexual transgression in which both men and women are culpable? This is the fundamental questions women must ask and answer ourselves in relation to the Me Too movement.

Lastly, for a mass movement to be sustainable, it must be owned and carried by the grassroots. The activism of grassroots communities is rooted in their daily realities. While the Me Too movement is important in empowering and legitimizing women who speak up about issues of sexual domination and oppression, the movement must transcend its racial and especially class biases, or it will remain a phenomenon of small circles and communities, mostly those which have internet access.

Dr. Agnes Khoo-Dzisi lives and works in Ghana as a University lecturer in the field of Social Sciences. She is also a co-founder of a community-based, social enterprise in rural Ghana, which provides food security, employment, training, and education for young men and women.