Silence, when it comes to sexual abuse and other gendered violence is one of our big challenges in Rwanda. It is the culture whereby people, especially women and girls, are afraid to speak out due to strongly held social norms that sexuality and relationships are private issues and the stigma and judgements that come with reporting gender-based violence which exacerbates the pain victims go through. 

A lot of effort has gone into removing barriers for women and girls to not only know their rights but also report cases when violence occurs, however, victims that find the courage to speak out or report face stigma, isolation, harassment as well as intimidation and threats to safety. Being believed is not something victims of sexual abuse are always afforded on reporting. For victims,  the follow-up and investigation can be intimidating and slow which limits access to justice.

This January, social media has been ablaze with women boldly speaking out including Twitter user Kamaliza Olive who made a public appeal to President Paul Kagame and First Lady Jeannette Kagame sharing her fears in relation to her safety because of her husband, a former Vice Mayor of Musanze District she accuses of battering. He has since been denied his request for bail with a public trial planned soon. Another Twitter user let everyone interested know that “2020 we are done coddling rapists and rape apologists” and named names of apologists and sexual abuse offenders.

UN Women illustrations

Emotions on social media have been high with many women speaking out on their experiences and the need for support and justice for victims. There has been a lot of taking sides and many advising caution and to let the justice system do its job. But this is not the first time that women have resorted to social media to speak out and call for the institutions concerned to take action against alleged perpetrators of gender-based violence including rape, physical and sexual abuse.

Those wondering why women take to social media and not reporting to the institutions concerned must know the barriers faced because of the nature of this kind of abuse. It doesn’t take place, often in public glare and when it does, men are assured of solidarity in victim-blaming. From ‘she provoked him’ to ‘why was she dressed like that’.  Rape and other forms of gender-based violence are condoned in many ways like language, behaviour especially of men, and above all, it is about power men yield in society and institutions. Men hold power financially, socially and the chances of beating this power to be believed as a victim are really slim. 

This is why women have been organising to bring collective voices to individual experiences. And while social media is being preferred as an avenue to speak out, it doesn’t mean formal institutions are disregarded and indeed need to accommodate women’s experiences and support their pursuit of justice. Both can exist and we must understand why social media?

  • A culture of victim-blaming and justifying violence against women and girls remains common thus mobilizing to speak out collectively and having a support network.
  • Men’s solidarity in the face of gender-based violence by either actively discrediting victims (even when victims are men) or just standing by and refusing to call out their relatives, colleagues and friends that perpetrate and perpetuate gender-based violence is real.
  • Institutions, structures and systems that are supposed to protect women and girls, unfortunately, disappoint victims most times due to the bureaucracy, corruption and lengthy processes involved in reporting and investigating GBV. This blocks any hope and often times re-victimizes and re-traumatizes the victims

Social media has brought in new ways of expression and enabled women to mobilize support. Before the outing of violators online, women have created initiatives and networks for victims to voice violations of their rights, oftentimes they directly reach individuals and institutions that can take action as well as using of these platforms to name and shame as part of a larger quest to be free from violence and reclaiming their voice. 

Women are not expecting social media to replace institutions but are using social media to rally collective voices to point it out to institutions that the time for action is long overdue.

However, the idea of women and girls having the courage and taking the initiative to speak out, report, support and advocate on behalf of each other that challenges the stereotype of women being just victims rubs some the wrong way, thus the public attacks on social media and elsewhere.

Some individuals and institutions that are mired by hierarchical traditions and procedures might not acknowledge and appreciate social media power which can be an equalizer in the hands of victims but it’s high time we recognize that the world has changed. More women are getting connected and finding solidarity within communities, countries and beyond borders and this fuels long held back need to speak out about their experiences.

Women and girls will no longer accept silence as the default in the face of violence. Holding perpetrators accountable by reporting and speaking out by any means possible is the new decade norm. Dismantle the patriarchy one tweet at a time!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

Annette Natukunda Mukiga is a radical feminist that works in the development sector on women’s empowerment and gender equality in Rwanda.

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