By Inna Lazareva
YAOUNDE, May 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Hundreds of women have spoken out about sexual harassment and abuse in Namibia, sparking what activists on Friday said was one of Africa's first major #MeToo movements.
In the past fortnight more than 200 cases of sexual violence have been reported to the Namibian Women's Lawyers Association (NWLA), which is providing free legal advice to victims.
"Women are tired. And they're saying 'no more,'" Merja Iileka, one of the movement's activists, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from the capital Windhoek.
"We're slowly lifting the veil on this culture of silence. And we are encouraging each other to put aside the shame and the stigma, which is what we've been exposed to growing up with our mothers, sisters, aunts, generations before us."
The #MeToo movement began in the United States in late 2017 in response to accusations of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry and has emboldened women from Britain and France to India and Iran to speak out.
But it has been slower to take off in Africa, where campaigners say many women fear reprisals for speaking out.
Namibia's movement was initially triggered by a local student who spoke out on social media last month about being sexually abused on campus.
"A lot of people are asking, 'Why now?' The #MeToo movement in the US started about two years ago," Iileka said.
"All I can say is social media has given survivors an opportunity to seek safety in numbers."
NWLA's chairwoman Ruth Herunga said it was the first movement of this kind using the hashtag #MeToo in Africa.
"The main types [of cases] we see are rape, harassment, sexual assault, and intimidation," Herunga said by email, adding that nine cases had already been referred to the police.
"We are working to ensure that where justice is due, justice is served," she said.
Sister Namibia, a local women's rights organisation, says 1 out of 3 women will experience gender-based violence during their lifetime and an estimated 1 out of 5 is in an abusive relationship.
While the law criminalises rape, victims often withdraw charges due to compensation from the accused, family pressure, or threats, according to the 2018 US State Department human rights report on Namibia.
"NWLA also hopes to shift the mindsets in our legal infrastructure — that the key institutions involved in handling sexual violence cases take them seriously, and that they are handled with due efficiency and sensitivity," Herunga said.
Namibia's first lady, Monica Geingos, has thrown her weight behind the movement and tweeted last week that her team would offer free advice to victims.
(Reporting by Inna Lazareva @InnaLaz. Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)