#MeToo reaches Swaziland, but this should just be the beginning

As per usual, I was running. No amount of planning, no amount of staff-help can prepare you for a live event, especially in southern Africa, when technical glitches are as common as handshakes. So far, however, and due in part to our running, the event was going very smoothly. The messaging was strong, the crowd engaged and activated by the cause and there was the right mixture of indignation and determination for change in the performers and those who had attended. Of course, as anyone organizing an advocacy event will no doubt relate, much of this washed over me and my team, versed as we were in these issues, as we ran from pillar to post.

Whilst the majority of the high-profile silence breakers, and the #MeToo movement as a whole has had a largely western focus, its effects have reached every continent, and every country, no matter how small. And for a small country, Swaziland carries the weight of some big statistics. HIV and TB prevalence remain the world’s highest per capita, levels of intimate partner violence, including sexual violence, are alarmingly high and economic instability continually threatens family structures and livelihoods.

In response, Kwakha Indvodza (meaning ‘Building a Man’ in SiSwati), with support from the US Embassy in Swaziland, continues its entrenched advocacy against gender based violence, especially sexual violence against women and girls. Since 2015, Kwakha Indvodza and the US Embassy have hosted an annual campaign called ‘Arts Against Abuse’, which, through the arts, provides various platforms for young men and women to engage in issues of gender inequality and violence against women and girls. Last year’s 4-month campaign included campus events at Swaziland’s tertiary institutions, a public ‘Walk a Mile in her Shoes’ march and, as has become tradition, ended in a mixed-arts “concert” carrying the same name. Hundreds of young people attended 2017’s concert to watch, listen and interact with some of Swaziland’s top artists and learn more about GBV and its effects on men, women and children.

This was the reason I was running, almost absent-minded to the advocate or artist onstage, thinking instead about what happens next, about the lighting, sound and audience reaction. There comes a moment, however, as I am sure any gender-rights activist can recall, when you are caught unawares, blind-sided by a story, or by the enormity, pervasiveness and global nature of men’s abuse of power over women. Mine came when Ambassador Peterson, US Ambassador to Swaziland stood up on stage to give what I thought was to be a politicized vote of thanks.

Instead, she said:

“As Swazi activists and citizens fight against gender-based violence, I think it is important to note that the United States is going through its own significant moment of calling out gender-based violence and sexual harassment.  Developments in the U.S. prompted Time magazine to name as its 2017 Person of the Year “The Silence Breakers,” the women who stepped forward to shed light on sexual harassment and abuse.”

In the spirit of those brave women and of #MeToo, I have decided to share some of my own experiences:

I too have been subjected to catcalls.

I too have been subjected to flashing.

I too have been groped on public transport.

And I too have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.

While the first three were definitely not pleasant, the fourth was by far the worst because I had to work every day with my harasser in a job that I was not, at that point in my life, in a position to leave.

People may hear of these experiences and say to themselves that these acts are really not so bad because I was not physically injured, raped, or even killed – all of which are outcomes that are routinely reported in the Swazi press. The problem is that actions such as flashing or groping grow out of, and reinforce, notions that women do not require the same degree of respect as men and that a woman’s body is there for anyone to enjoy, in any manner they wish – regardless of the wishes of the woman herself. These smaller acts create the environment for the larger headline-grabbers of physical abuse, rape, and murder to occur. And they are all rooted in a fundamentally unequal status for women. So, while many of us at this time of year are focused on efforts to end gender-based violence, we need to remember that our efforts in this regard will only succeed if we are all, men and women, boys and girls, working every day to challenge abuse in all its forms, however small, and to ensure equal opportunity and equal respect for all.

My staff and I, seasoned advocates whose skins were thick with the regularity of such horror stories, stopped running. It was not so much what the Ambassador had said, but who was saying it. As much as our event had tried to create our own taste of showbiz, this wasn’t Hollywood or Broadway. This was one of the 188 women and men ambassadors chosen to represent the US outside of its borders. And she too has her story.

We have habits of excusing abuse and harassment as an affliction of the lower class, of the immigrant, minority or non-white. But in the Ambassador’s story, as we have found elsewhere in media, politics and business, we find the head-on confrontation of the visible and invisible power structures that allow men to dominate and abuse and promote a belief that women should accept domination and abuse. It is no different in southern Africa than in North America.

In many ways we need our own southern African #MeToo revolution, and in many ways we are still a long way off achieving it. We need to contextualize the act of speaking against predatory behavior into our particular, already burdened part of the world. We need to do this not only to prevent the view that #MeToo is a Western phenomenon, but also to prevent its global stagnation, to avoid the inevitable patriarchal backlash which is already beginning. But most of all, we need our own #MeToo to reject the view that this simply our reality. Abuse and violence have become so normalized in the region that many believe it is an expectation rather than the inexcusable exception. We desperately need to strengthen our own legislation which protects women and girls from sexual violence and harassment. We need our own silence-breakers and our own spotlight to turn on those who, in the home, in the community, in the workplace and in Parliament believe that it’s their right to harm, threaten and abuse women.

Swaziland’s two houses of parliament are currently debating a third version of a Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Bill, which has failed to be adopted into law since 2009. The Bill features key legislation which further defines and prosecutes a number of sexual offense, including flashing, stalking and sexual assault in the eyes of the law.

Ambassador Lisa Peterson is the US Ambassador to the Swaziland.