Posted in Stories
April 25, 2018

Why #MeToo Matters Internationally

Cultural norms vary globally. Will #MeToo make women speak worldwide?

By Nazli Togrul

In the United States, the #MeToo movement has provided a platform to victims of sexual assault to share their experiences, but what about elsewhere?

According to a 2017 World Health Organization report, about 35 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime globally, and according to a 2014 UNICEF report, 120 million girls around the world have experienced forced sexual acts in their lives.

Rosamund Ebdon, the head of policy at Plan International, a humanitarian organization that strives to advance girls’ and children’s rights globally, said this happens because of women’s lower status and vulnerability in society.

Limited or no access to resources and other factors prevent women from speaking out.

Family hierarchies, tradition and lack of education play a role in these statistics, according to Sruveera Sathi, an outreach volunteer and client advocate for ASHA for Women.

ASHA for women is an organization that supports South-Asian women who may be in abusive homes and hesitant to speak up due to cultural or social barriers.

Fifty-nine countries do not have laws to protect women from sexual harassment at work, and forty-five do not have laws punishing domestic violence, according to the World Bank Group.

Raising the stakes

Ebdon said that the #MeToo movement has helped individuals raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault.

“I think there is some incredibly heartening examples from America where we’ve seen young students grasp an issue and really speak bravely about it, “ Ebdon said. “Girls’ voices need to be heard and it’s harder for young girls than it is for older women to be courageous and speak out.”

Plan International strives to prevent girls from being exposed to child marriage and harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation by working with law and policy makers in countries all over the world.

Child marriage happens mostly within countries in South Asia and West and Central Africa, while female genital mutilation takes place mostly in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, according to Plan International.

They work to challenge views and traditional values of males, who Ebdon describes as “decision makers” in the culture, to change the perception of girls and their standing in the community to promote equality.

Sathi said she noticed that immigration to the U.S. does not always mean leaving traditions back home.

Women who arrive in the U.S. on a dependent visa cannot work and have to be financially dependent on their husbands or families. If a woman is sexually assaulted, she may be much more hesitant to speak up or seek help due to the power held over her, according to Sathi.

“I think that the South Asian community has a little bit of trouble accepting that these kinds of issues are happening in the United States,” Sathi said. “The sad thing is that we are seeing it in younger people too because unfortunately, those kind of patterns haven’t been broken.”

‘Men are like that’

Rebecca Merkin, an associate professor of intercultural and interpersonal communications at Baruch College in New York City, recalled a discussion with her students on sexual harassment where she requested a student to ask their friends in Brazil what they thought about sexual harassment.

“I almost didn’t trust my statistics,” Merkin said. “I was like, ‘what do you mean they don’t mind sexual harassment?’”

The student’s response on his findings was, “Men are like that. A man is a man.”

Merkin said that in some places, like the Netherlands, the culture is more feminine and women are listened to when they speak out about being uncomfortable in the workplace. Feminine societies do not have huge differences between genders compared to rest of the world, according to Merkin. Both males and females are treated as equals.


“I think in other cultures, it’s seen as ‘this is what happens,’” Merkin said.

Ivan Blanco, a retired faculty member in the department of business management in Texas State University, said that certain cultural practices in Venezuela are more likely to be seen as sexual harassment in the US.

“In Venezuela, one of the traditions is to say to women that just pass by that ‘you have nice body, you have an attractive body,’” Blanco said.“There is kind of an unspoken conviction or idea that women are expecting that.”

In his research on people’s perception of what constitutes sexual harassment, Blanco noticed that most women from other cultures do not always perceive certain actions, such as catcalling, as sexual harassment.

Blanco believes that they take their social cues from the society, traditions, and religion of their culture.

“Here, we take the cues more from the law, the impact that our actions have on ourselves,” Blanco said, referring to American culture. 

According to Blanco, other countries are starting to learn from the #MeToo movement in the U.S. and finding ways to speak up about sexual harassment.

“You need to be able to support an individual to challenge the discrimination that they are feeling but you can’t do that in isolation of the environment around them and the people who hold power over them,” Ebdon said.


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