By Kim Harrisberg
WINDHOEK, March 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When Namibian activist Venicia Shanjenka first saw the tweet naming and shaming a rapist in the tiny southern African country of 2.5 million, she thought it was a brave but isolated act.
But one tweet turned into hundreds, and #MeTooNamibia erupted into a growing movement backed by the first lady, Monica Geingos, that is using social media to track down sexual predators, and offer survivors psychosocial and legal support.
"For a small country, we were alarmed at the number of women sharing stories online," said Shanjenka, a 24-year-old makeup artist and one of the founding members of Slut Shame Walk, a women's empowerment organisation and member of #MeTooNamibia.
"We are currently using the testimonies from social media to build a sex offenders list for prosecutions," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding the private database would be taken to the Supreme Court and put online in the coming year.
#MeTooNamibia, with partners such as Slut Shame Walk, are also campaigning for more female police officers, organising panel discussions at schools and universities, and planning annual marches against the excuses men use to rape.
Chief Inspector Hendrik Marthinus Olivier of the Gender Based Violence Protection Unit in Windhoek said they receive 300 to 400 domestic violence cases per month.
"It is difficult to say why these numbers are so high for such a small country, but I think unemployment, drugs, and alcohol play a big role," he said in a phone interview, adding that they are working with social workers to tackle the issue.
Namibia's unemployment rate stands at 33%, according to the country's statistics agency.
Geingos said with this prevalence of violence against women, it did not take long to start and build a movement.
One day after the first tweet she brought together a consortium of activists and academics fighting violence against women under the #MeTooNamibia banner.
Fears of Reprisals
"It definitely opened up conversations that were previously not easy to have ... It was cathartic (for survivors)," said Geingos in an interview in a meeting room in the State House in the capital of Windhoek.
The #MeToo movement began in the United States in late 2017 in response to accusations of sexual assault and harassment by movie producer Harvey Weinstein and quickly spread, emboldening women from Britain and France to India and Iran to speak out.
According to the United Nations, it is estimated that 35% of women globally experience physical or sexual violence during their life, although some national studies say this number is as high as 70%.
But the #MeToo movement has been slower to take off in Africa, where campaigners say many women fear reprisals for speaking out.
"It is a bit of a minefield," said Geingos, 43, a lawyer and former head of Namibia's largest private equity fund, adding when women began naming sexual predators they started receiving threats of defamation lawsuits.
Despite this, the movement has grown in scope and size, with 30 different organisations now involved.
"They were fearless, in my view," said Geingos.
Namibia ranked 12 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap.
But activists said this was not an accurate measurement of gender equality in Namibia, where topics like political empowerment are "tokenistic", said Ndapwa Alweendo, one of the founders of a feminist podcast "Heard Not Seen."
"The government has a zebra policy in parliament: one man, one woman. But this isn't enough as it is still a very traditional, conservative leadership," said Alweendo with co-founder Paleni Amulungu from a coffee shop in Windhoek.
"Heard Not Seen" uses humour and dialogue to disrupt taboo topics in Namibia, said the founders, with the podcast downloaded 5,000 times since starting in July 2018.
The 30 civil society organisations working together under the #MeTooNamibia banner provide legal and psychosocial support for survivors of sexual assault, funded largely from the first lady's own pocket.
"We worked with police to set up a centre (in Windhoek) where women can make cases. We got suicide risk cases into therapeutic care. Those being threatened with defamation were linked up with lawyers," said Geingos.
Despite efforts, there have been no convictions so far.
"Women are still working through their fear of bringing their cases all the way to court," said Shanjenka.
"Sometimes they are intimidated, or sometimes their cases are more than 2 years old and there are limited investigative resources," she said from her home, nursing her 8-month-old daughter. "Our success is the online traffic (on Instagram and Twitter). It has become a safe space to go if you need to share your story and be heard."
Shanjenka said African countries were taking lessons from one another, with activists sharing pictures and tactics of sexual predators.
"It has become a Pan-African support network," she said.
In 2014, Kenyan women protested with the slogan #MyDressIsMyChoice after a woman was beaten for wearing a miniskirt.
Last year, thousands of South African women took to the streets to protest using the slogan #AmINext? after a university student was raped and killed at a post office in Cape Town.
In Senegal in late 2017, two women started a movement under the name #Nopiwouma, which means "I will not shut up" in the local Wolof language.
But Geingos said the movement had a long way to go.
"The one thing we don't want to accept is to live in a world where women who've been raped are expected to keep quiet, and are portrayed as liars," she said. "Every single man who's not held accountable becomes a high risk to reoffend."
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Belinda Goldsmithy Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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