Me Too didn’t start with a hashtag - Hakima Abbas' remarks at EDD 2018

On June 5, 2018, AWID’s co-Executive Director Hakima Abbas interacted with three other panelists at the opening ceremony of the European Development Days 2018, in a discussion focused on global movements tackling multiple forms of violence against women and girls.

Here are her remarks:

Women and girls are speaking out loudly and visibly against violence, harassment, and abuse -- from the #MeToo movement to #NiUnaMenos to social media messaging. Is this a truly global phenomenon and are the voices of the most marginalized being heard in these conversations?

Me Too as a campaign began in 2006 by a Black woman in the the U.S named Tarana Burke to support survivors of sexual violence, particularly young and impoverished women of color. In the last year, because Me Too resonated with survivors all around the world and went viral with a hashtag, the conversation about gender-based violence particularly in the workplace has garnered global attention and has enabled survivors to build collective power, mobilize, challenge the stigma, and call for justice.

But this conversation didn’t start with a hashtag, it built from the multiple ways in which feminists and women human rights defenders have been challenging the system that enables, creates and perpetuates this violence. And it always begins from the resistance of the most marginalized.
hakima abbas
© EDD2018

Two academics, Htun and Weldon, conducted a study that presented a global comparative analysis in 70 countries of policies on VAW over four decades (from 1975 - 2005), which they published in a paper called the Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change. They showed what feminist and women human rights defenders have known anecdotally for a very long time - that the autonomous mobilization of feminists is the critical factor accounting for policy change on violence against women domestically and transnationally - not political parties, women in government, or even factors like national wealth.

They also showed that the impact of global norms on domestic policy is conditional on the presence of feminist movements in domestic contexts, again pointing to the importance of vibrant feminist movements.

This is not only a global phenomenon but one that has been ongoing for centuries. On this issue, women, girls, trans and intersex people have been creating the language of gender-based violence, of violence against women and girls, that we are all using, making these issues priorities, setting agendas, and calling for systemic, long term transformation. There are periods, like now, when the groundswell of resistance creates a tidal wave. A wave that becomes impossible to ignore and can overturn attitudes, policies, power relations. What is important for women’s rights and feminist movements is to try to leverage the attention and momentum to make sure that after the spotlight has moved (spotlights always do) there is a stronger, more connected, movement to continue the everyday, painstaking, thankless, dangerous and critical work that is feminist organizing and activism.

Going back to your question about whether this is a global phenomenon, the answer is simply yes, because the phenomenon of violence, silence, and stigmatization is global but it’s also not a phenomenon, it’s a system. It has a name. It’s called patriarchy. It is this system that is knitted into the very fabric of most societies. It’s a system of domination and coercion – and is manifest not only in the violence that occurs behind closed doors and in the most intimate spaces of our lives, but also violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors against women human rights defenders and violence entrenched in the impoverishment created and maintained by the power asymmetry of global trade and economic systems.

And while the system is global and pervasive, I recently saw the visualization of the #MeToo movement, which clearly highlights what we know already – that the spotlight has not been shone on all the women, girls, trans and intersex people who are organizing, disrupting and proposing new ways of being in the Global South and the most marginalized in the North. Even #MeToo shows only a small window, mostly based in the Global North, into the massive and global-scale resistance that has been underway for decades. Women and girls, trans and intersex people, are actively engaged in combating violence all around the world, but that work, that challenge is still largely unsupported and even ignored. It is the disabled, indigenous, Black, impoverished, refugee, women, girls, trans and intersex people, informal workers, challenging intersecting forms of violence that will continue to make transformative change to end violence against women and girls.



Do you see any signs of a backlash or #MeToo fatigue? How can civil society confront such reactions?

I think our movements are used to external fatigue and to backlash. The thing is we are always what we are and so long as there is oppression there will be resistance, whether it is supported and amplified or not. That is not to say that our movements do not need support and, at times, amplification, solidarity and support in many forms are critical to social movements. And this is a really important moment in history where the consensus and influence of anti-rights, authoritarian, fundamentalist and fascist actors are gaining momentum around the world.

hakima abbas

We are seeing this throughout Europe as well as across all of our continents. What we have to do is support the movements to disrupt, delegitimize and dismantle this phenomenon. What I see is many power brokers making concessions to the demands of powerful elites and minorities who shape public norms, narratives and policies and entrench a culture of fear, hate and incitement to violence into public discourse. This rise of anti-rights actors is not happening in a vacuum, rather it is inextricably linked to the rise in militarism, unprecedented wealth accumulation and inequalities, continued extractivism, imposed development models and violent economic relations, and other global factors. These anti-rights forces, more often than not, target women and LGBTIQ people’s bodies and lives as one of the primary rallying sights, often times using the language and pretext of tradition, culture and religion, to advance their agendas of control and power. They are building consensus and growing in impact, coordination, resources and support. They have also focused attention on the international human rights system where they are attempting to create a parallel anti-rights normative framework that fails to recognize the universality of rights.

Feminist movements are confronting such attacks by monitoring, understanding, mobilizing and taking action against the actors and their actions but also by building a network of allies and partners who are willing to stand with feminists and women human rights defenders.

As I’ve said the gains of the attention and advocacy in these moments are only sustained by feminist movements. The next phase -- taking moments into a movements -- happen where and when movements are directly engaged.

hakima abbas
© EDD2018

Violence against women and girls is a global phenomenon – it exists everywhere and anyone can be affected by it at any stage of life. Since much of this violence is “hidden” behind closed doors, how do we shine a spotlight on it? What strategies are most effective at overcoming silence and stigma? And, if you could make one recommendation on what is most important to reduce violence, what would it be?

I would like to push back a little on the frame for this question. Violence is not hidden, we are choosing not to see, recognize or acknowledge the multiple forms of violence perpetrated against women and girls that are visible every day. That is not to say that women and girls are not the target of family and intimate partner violence that often happen behind closed doors, but that society is a part of creating the enabling environment that maintains the possibility of this violence. And despite it happening behind closed doors we know it is happening - in the North every public institution, from the police, to the health care system, to the schools, to workplaces - all know the costs and impact of this violence.

So long as patriarchy as a system is part of the fabric of our societies, violence and coercion will be par for the course. And patriarchy is not the only system of domination that women and girls experience. We experience the violence of capitalism in our impoverishment, the violence of extractivism when we are not able to self-determine our development and the violence of fundamentalisms when we are not able to make choices about our bodies, our cultural and religious expressions.

In such a complex environment, there is no silver bullet. There is no single strategy that will shift this power and the systems that oppress people. Which is why there is not a single actor in a movement but an ecosystem of organizations, collective, groups, communities who are taking organized sets of action across time, harnessing their collective power and making change. It is a movement building approach that is needed to end violence against women and girls.

As I have said, feminists and women’s movements ensure that institutional and policy reforms and game changing initiatives like the Spotlight Initiative live up to the potential imagined by the activists who demand them; they ensure that words become deeds.

Yet, according to recent OECD Development Assistance Committee reports, only 28% of the Official Development Assistance funds for gender equality have been allocated for civil society, and only 7% goes directly to civil society globally and a mere 0.6% reaches civil society in the Global South. While USD14.6 billion had been identified in new funding partnerships devoted to women and girls predominantly from corporate actors, only 27% of those partnerships include women’s organizations and only 9% of these initiatives committed direct resources to women’s organizations. In 2010, the median annual income of over 740 women’s organizations around the world was USD 20,000. 50% of women’s rights and feminist organizations have never received core funding and 50% have never received multi year funding. 98% do not have money raised for next year.

The Spotlight Initiative brings half a billion Euros to the table and has the potential to be game-changing for exactly the reasons I have shared: if done right, it will directly resource feminist movements and fuel the work that we know makes the difference in truly changing the game.

And to speak to the question - we shouldn’t aim to reduce violence - I believe we can end it.


Watch the full discussion held June 5 at the opening ceremony of the European Development Days 2018:

Speakers include:

Introduction of the Spotlight Initiative by Zain Verjee

Testimony by: Jaha Mapenzi Dukureh, The Gambia.