Much of the attention will be on the most physically violent kinds of abuse faced by this vulnerable group. Indeed, much of the violence manifests physically, but what this year’s theme seeks to do is highlight the multifaceted nature of gender-based violence and its far-reaching effects. Many of the first faces of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement were familiar ones, people that one could easily assume are insulated by money and fame. That assumption would be wrong. Gender-based violence is intersectional and non-discriminatory. It does not care for one’s race, age, location, social class or occupation.

This was evidenced by the spate of allegations (later confirmed) of sexual harassment in multiple civil society organisations across the world, including South Africa. Employees from these organisations spoke up, in some cases exposing over a decade of gender-based violence aimed at women in those work spaces. The violence ranged from unwanted verbal sexual advances, to threats to their livelihood if they did not perform sexual favours for men in power. In one case, a woman was the main abuser, threatening a subordinate with unemployment for not entertaining the unwanted sexual advances of a powerful government official. The abuse was compounded by the culture of protecting the abusers, particularly those in positions of power, by their peers and others. This, together with a culture of intimidation, prevented the women from speaking out. 

The revelations left the civil society sector reeling. Often, by virtue of the good, necessary and important work that these organisations do, they occupy the moral high ground. These exposés by the ever-vigilant media led the public to question whether or not civil society has lost this position in our communities. There aren’t many spaces that are beyond reproach and public interest organisations are for many, the last port of call when violence – in whatever form – takes place. Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether civil society organisations ever occupied this moral high ground.

In most of these cases, the organisations were relatively quick to address the allegations. There was collective censure and internal inquiries were conducted. The alleged perpetrators were suspended and/or dismissed from their positions. The allegations were addressed in the public with relative openness and transparency. There was also a sense of urgency in the seeking of accountability that accompanied the enquiries. There was sensitivity from both the media and the organisations when dealing with the brave women who spoke up. Whilst all this is commendable, it is concerning that these spaces enabled such harm to take place.

The reason that the abuse was and indeed remains able to thrive and stay hidden for so long, is the impunity with which the abusers conduct themselves. This is reinforced by a culture of silence when it comes to sexual harassment, for fear of losing one’s livelihood, as well as the stigma attached to it. Society has for far too long been passive in the acceptance of problematic behaviour. The #MeToo movement – and all those that followed – allowed women to no longer stand alone when raising their voices. 

South Africa is a constitutional democracy, governed by a living document – our Constitution – which seeks to protect all that live in the country. Sexual harassment is a direct threat to the inherent human dignity of all women and girls exposed to this behaviour in their respective spaces. The freedom and security of the person protects one’s bodily integrity and the right to be free from violence. In an ever-evolving society, it is important to re-examine how the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are understood. It is necessary to frame sexual harassment as a violence deserving of swift and continuous action. It is also necessary to amplify the voices of those who are ignored and stifled, to foster the spirit of non-discrimination and equality. This is indeed what this year’s theme seeks to do. When those spaces – which were once seen as safe for all – are exposed, complacency can no longer be accepted. This year’s happenings are evidence of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment. #HearMeToo is an invitation to speak and be heard, to be understood as a victim of gender-based violence, without fear of reprisal.

By Ms Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights
24 November 2018