African Sisterhood and the Push for Accountability in the #MeToo Era

We exist as women who are black, who are feminist, each stranded for a moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle-because being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one has done: we would have to fight the world”- Michelle Wallace, wrote back in 1979 in Anger in Isolation: Black feminist’s search for sisterhood essay collection But Some of Us are Brave.

Everyday I observe many young women showing this bravery both in my country and outside, in conversations on how the world treats us or puts unfair expectations on women like me – women from Africa.

For the many African women who face multiple discriminations in this fast-paced technology and high connectivity era, breaking the silence becomes more than just a moment.  

We have, no doubt, made significant leaps, faced postcolonial power battles and had constitutions that recognise women and girls rights. We have sent a significant number of women and girls to school and to the job markets but the gender – power relations both in homes and in institutions remain largely untransformed .

Various women’s movements on the continent continue to push for these changes to ensure accountability. Recently in Uganda, a high profile #MeToo case unraveled. Samantha Mwesigye, a senior State Attorney broke the silence after 10 indelible years of sexual harassment at the hands of now Deputy Solicitor General Christopher Gashirabake. Several months after she reported the case, the man who had been the director of legal affairs in the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs was promoted and no committee was set up to hear her case.

After reporting internally and being asked by most senior officials to settle with her harasser ‘amicably’, Mwesigye decided it was time to tell the country her story.

Unlike the backlash we witnessed last year when Ugandan female parliamentarian and Kabarole Woman MP Sylvia Rwabwogo reported to police a case against a 25 year old man who had sent her unwanted messages, Mwesigye got support from several corners.  The parliamentarian, who turned to Police in fear for her life amidst kidnaps and killings targeting women in the capital Kampala, faced the wrath both in the media and online commentaries with many sympathising with the man who the media called “love-struck”. This time, Mwesigye got a lot of support from the women’s groups which united under #Justice4Samantha.

Does this mean we are making strides? It is not clear. The fight against impunity, in a country where accountability is a rarity right from the presidency, can be extremely difficult especially when you are challenging powerful patriarchal figures leading equally patriarchal institutions. But the continued campaign to bring Mwesigye justice is an example of how unified action  is necessary when those among us who are brave enough do speak out.

Women’s rights advocates support #Justice4Samantha in Uganda, May 2019

We continue to support Samantha knowing that these struggles are not just within the state machinery but in the fabric of society too. For women like me, feminist struggle is not only the struggle to ensure another woman is not sexually harassed in a radio station studio of a major media power house in East Africa, but also that women have a right to impart knowledge by giving them equal access to public media platforms. We continue to fight that the Ugandan government and society do not gag a female academic and activist Dr Stella Nyanzi who is currently imprisoned and on trial.

When a leading thinker and scholar in the field of critical race theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw brought the term ‘Intersectionality’, it took decades to fairly take mainstream use.  But here and everywhere, it has helped us understand the intersections /interconnectedness of discrimination and oppression one experiences from gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and geographical locations.  It helps us understand how oppressions are upheld too as African women face a globalised oppression.

In the last one year we have seen South African women continue to organise under #TheTotalShutdown to protest gender-based violence following marches in August 2018. On Women’s Day this year, Kenyan women took to the streets to protest and speak out against rising femicide in the country. Under the campaign #HerLifeMatters, Kenyan women continue to  call for protection and accountability following the murder of 40 women in the last five months.

Kenyan women leaders and advocates at the launch of #HerLifeMatters campaign in Nairobi. Courtesy Photo

Earlier in May, images out of Nigeria shocked the world as it was revealed that the police in Abuja had raped and assaulted women found in clubs in the name of crackdown on prostitution. This was followed by the raid on a Marie Stopes clinic in Lagos by police on allegations of illegal abortion in a country that still upholds one of the most restrictive laws on the services women and girls often need to save their life and future.  Nigerian women continue to organise and protest under #EndWaronNigerianWomen.

In 2006, Taran Burke, an African American civil rights activist founded the Me Too movement. Though it only got global attention and recognition in 2017 via Hollywood, the fight for women’s bodily autonomy and accountability for abuse calls out the different interwoven systems of oppression in the different countries and societies.

These #MeToo movements, whatever form and pace they may take on, are necessary and long overdue. When a continental body like the African Union is still investing in cover up of sexual harassment and abuse instead of accountability, we very well know the journey ahead is a long and winding one.

As women continue to fight for their rights, allies are indeed important in shifting power. However, you can only be a true ally if you are not seeking to make yourself the centre of our struggle. In the struggle to end abuse against women, allies who take a seat, learn and respect the voices of women including at times when their help is deemed counterproductive, can make a big difference. Like Mukoma Wa Ngugi, professor of English at Cornell University said, we often have to face privilege of obliviousness, allies have to be aware these stories are women’s lived experiences and that of the many women that came before them.

As we build on the #MeToo we must confront the the biases and also recognise that African feminists lived among our grandmothers generation and in there we can find both wisdom and power to build upon. Today we are connecting the dots and questioning the many interlocking forms of oppression, old and new, in a much more connected world from the local, to national and the global stage.

Voices like Samantha’s are just as powerful as Taran Burke in 2006 when she shouted Me Too and the society largely ignored a black woman’s voice. She persisted, so we too must press on. Along with those allies, however few, that do appreciate and are willing to do the work in the trenches, the pushing back against apologists of the status quo. Social transformation has never been a mass activity in its beginnings. Like one feminist recently said,  “If your community is ready for you, then you are too late.” 

Rosebell Kagumire is a trained journalist, award-winning blogger, pan-African feminist and socio-political commentator. Find her on Twitter @RosebellK

Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a trained journalist, award-winning blogger, pan-African feminist and socio-political commentator. She has expertise in media, human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues. She received the Anna Guèye 2018 award for digital democracy, justice and equality by Africtivistes.