Beyond #MeToo: Female leaders talk about what needs to happen next

(From left to right) Sohini Bhattacharya, president and CEO of Breakthrough; Amanda Nguyen, founder and CEO of Rise; and Monica Ramirez, co-founder and president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. Photo by: Skoll Foundation

OXFORD, United Kingdom — High-profile speakers and grassroots activists are tackling the issue of how to translate the momentum of the #MeToo and #TimesUp social movements into concrete action for the most marginalized women around the world at the Skoll World Forum conference in Oxford this week.

Many delegates have broached the issue, including Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of United Nations Women, who characterized the world’s women as being in revolt in a speech during the opening ceremony, and called on global institutions to fix persisting inequalities. "What we need is truth and correction,” she said. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who also spoke at the opening ceremony, described gender inequality as the "greatest disparity on earth." 

While 2017 has been heralded as a transformative year for women’s movements — with millions participating in online campaigns in the wake of high-profile revelations of sexual abuse and harassment in Hollywood and beyond, including in the aid sector — questions remain about how this collective energy can be applied to women and girls with less visibility and fewer opportunities.

“It’s not just about how we embrace those who are bravely coming forward, but how courageous and bold are we going to be as we think about what it is we are asking people to come forward to, and what we are doing to fix things to actually support people.”

— Monica Ramirez, co-founder and president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas

Speaking during a panel session on the topic, Monica Ramirez, co-founder and president of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (The National Farmworker Women's Alliance) and co-author of a letter that helped to launch the #TimesUp movement, said: “We have this incredible gift in that women in the entertainment industry chose to use their platforms to give other individuals … the opportunity to talk about what they’re experiencing.”

Ramirez called on the global community to make the most of this opportunity, and to “ensure the truths being told are not forgotten; that we do something with and about this; and spread the message [that] sexual violence should not exist in any place,” especially among women who are economically and socially “invisible.”

Here are three key takeaways from the discussion.

1. Coming forward is important, but coming forward to what?

“As we’re telling people to come forward, we also have to think carefully about what are we asking people to come forward to,” Ramirez said. That includes asking which systems and laws need to be created or fixed, and what forms of training are needed to make sure victims are not retraumatized.

“As we look forward, it’s not just about how we embrace those who are bravely coming forward, but how courageous and bold are we going to be as we think about what it is we are asking people to come forward to, and what we are doing to fix things to actually support people,” she said.

2. Victims must be at the center of reforms.

Amanda Nguyen, founder and CEO of Rise, said that sexism is embedded in the structures of law, and described the legal system as gendered. Rise is a civil rights NGO that drafted the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights and helped to achieve its unanimous passage through the U.S. legislature.

Speaking about her personal experience of rape, she said “the worst thing that happened to me wasn’t being raped; it was being betrayed by a broken criminal justice system.”

Nguyen has now turned her attention to the U.N. General Assembly, which she said has never passed a comprehensive resolution focused on sexual violence. The issue has only ever been a category within other resolutions, such as rape in the context of war, she said. Rise is now campaigning for UNGA to pass a resolution guaranteeing the rights of survivors of sexual violence around the world.

“In some parts of the world, when a girl is raped and becomes pregnant, she is forced out of the education system,” Nguyen explained, so Rise’s proposed UNGA resolution would include the right to education, for example.

Sohini Bhattacharya, president and CEO of Breakthrough, a human rights organization working in the U.S. and India, said it is imperative that lawmakers and policymakers put survivors “at the table” when creating new laws, and that it must be an inclusive process.

“Include survivor voices when making the policies on sexual harassment … keeping in mind the undocumented worker … [or] the Dalit woman,” she said. “Let us be intersectional in approaching those laws and changing the system.”

3. Men cannot stand by.

Breakthrough has been working with men and boys to end violence against women and girls for a long time, Bhattacharya said, by giving a clear message of “Don’t be a bystander, speak up, react, and do whatever you can to stop it at that point in time.”

The message has been delivered through campaigns such as “Bell Bajao,” or “Ring the Bell,” a series of TV commercials aired in India in 2008. The broadcasts urged men who overhear domestic violence in their neighbor’s homes to go and ring the doorbell and ask to borrow tea, or offer some other question, in order to interrupt the violence.  

However, it is also important simply to create a space for dialogue between men and women to talk about issues such as sexual harassment, she said. Breakthrough convened a group of teenage boys and girls in a village in India to do that.
“We said these girls are dropping out of school because of the harassment they face from you, and the boys said ‘We had no idea, we were just being funny … We didn’t realize’ ... There have to be spaces for creating that type of dialogue,” Bhattacharya said.

Editor's note: Devex traveled to the Skoll World Forum with the support of the Skoll Foundation. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.