A big #MeToo moment against gender-based assault

A year since this hashtag movement, rallies around the world help signal a shift in attitudes on equality and safety for women and girls.

People attend a rally against gender-based and sexual violence against women in Madrid, Spain, Nov. 25.

On Nov. 25, tens of thousands of people from Greece to Ecuador to Tanzania rallied against gender-based assaults of all kinds. Officially the protests marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The event also kicked off a new campaign by the United Nations to fight the kind of violence that will affect more than a third of women during their lives.

Yet the large size of the crowds, especially in Europe, also signals the rapid spread of the #MeToo movement. A year after revelations about sexual abuse in Hollywood, many nations have gone from hashtag activism to attempting real progress against gender-based discrimination and abuse. 

If social media were the only gauge of progress, the numbers would speak loudly. On Twitter, #MeToo averages more than 55,000 uses a day and has been used in more than 85 countries. Nearly a third of the tweets have been in languages other than English.

Yet substantial progress seems more difficult to measure, especially in ending gender-based homicides. According to a new UN report, the rate of women killed by someone close to them dipped only slightly in recent years, from 1.4 per 100,000 in 2012 to 1.3 per 100,000 in 2017. Last year, an estimated 50,000 women and girls were intentionally killed by an intimate partner or family member. 

While many nations have new laws against gender-based violence or provide special training for law enforcement officials, much of the progress can be seen in anecdotal shifts of attitudes. Last March, for example, a Ugandan politician was forced to apologize after women protested his remark that husbands should beat their wives to “discipline” them. In Afghanistan, a survey revealed that young women are more likely than their mothers to oppose domestic violence. And the Roman Catholic Church’s global organization of nuns for the first time denounced the “culture of silence and secrecy” surrounding sexual abuse in the church.

The UN report also lays out this path to progress: “In order to prevent and tackle gender-related killing of women and girls, men need to be involved ... in changing cultural norms that move away from violent masculinity and gender stereotypes.”

The big task remains in ending harmful traditional practices, such as honor killings, child marriage, female infanticide, rape as a weapon of war, and for many, domestic violence. But also better collection of data can help raise awareness of the magnitude of the problems and ways to fix them. 

Since 2005, some 90 countries have conducted surveys about violence against women, double the number from the decade before. In 2011, the UN established nine indicators for measuring abuse against women. And among the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN in 2015, three concern gender-based violence.

The recent demonstrations were only the latest reminder of a movement to treat women as equal and valued partners, an idea that would allow them to live with safety and dignity.

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