Katarina Tadic explores the potential reasons as to why women in Eastern European countries are still struggling to report cases of sexual harassment despite the prominence of the #metoo movement. CW: sexual harassment/ violence.
The #metoo movement has been celebrated globally as a huge step forward for gender equality, particularly for reducing incidents of sexual assault against women in the workplace ever since it came to the forefront in the media. It illustrated the prevalence of sexism, violence and discrimination and how these injustices affect every woman, regardless of how wealthy or influential they might be. The #metoo movement was a call for action; for us to stand up for our rights and to start openly speaking about our painful experiences. However, the story of #metoo is a story about Western feminism and feminists; it is a story of how women in the least patriarchal societies decided to speak up after decades of silence. While celebrating the victories of #metoo, we tend to forget that it was not a global phenomenon. In many countries #metoo simply did not happen or failed to get off the ground. More specifically, the #metoo movement has revealed a West/East divide in Europe and countries in the Eastern region of the continent have not had their own #metoo successes.
But why is this? Are women in Eastern European countries more tolerant of harassment? Could it be that sexual violence is not as widespread as it is in the Western region of the continent? If we read the latest EU report on gender violence, we can easily draw our own conclusions. Based on a survey conducted throughout 28 countries in the EU, it has been estimated that between 83 and 102 million women living in the EU have experienced sexual harassment since the age of fifteen. Yet, the rates of prevalence in sexual harassment range from 81% – 71% in Sweden, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Finland, to 32% – 24% in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Considering the progressive gender policies that exist in Scandinavian countries, it is surprising that the rate of harassment is higher here than in Eastern European countries which some would consider more to be more traditionally patriarchal.
There are other factors we must bear in mind, that can also explain the absence of the #metoo movement in Eastern Europe. Firstly, it is worth underlining, as the journalist Slavenka Drakulic has noted, that there were attempts to establish the #metoo movement in Poland, Czech Republic and Romania but these efforts were quashed quickly. This could be due to a lack of an environment where women are encouraged to speak about their experience and to get support from others, partly explaining the low rate of reported harassment in the EU survey. In general, many women in these countries don’t have the privilege of an open environment where they can speak about sexual harassment and there is little wider public discussion that tackles the issue. Hence, women who decide to speak up risk ridicule and humiliation, not to mention facing accusations of being the ones who provoked incidents of sexual violence in the first place.
Furthermore, legislation varies and sometimes does not provide enough support for victims of sexual violence once they do come forward. Moreover, allegations of sexual harassment are frequently downplayed and the appropriate laws are not applied. The Council of Europe convention against violence against women, better known as the Istanbul Convention from 2011, refers explicitly to sexual harassment. However, not all European countries ratified the Convention at the time. Croatia was the last country to ratify the convention in April this year, but in countries like Bulgaria or Slovakia it was labelled as a promotion of ‘gender ideology’.
Another potential reason as to why #metoo failed to get off the ground in Eastern Europe is the disparity in wealth between many of these countries compared to those in the West. High unemployment rates have meant that options for ensuring stable income and social security are limited. In countries such as Serbia, reporting harassment and going against employers results in increased vulnerability since there is little protection for victims of sexual violence due to lengthy judicial processes and ineffective institutions which should support women who make claims. This can result in women losing their jobs and having difficulties in finding new employment, leaving many women who are brave enough to speak out about their abuse incomeless. As a result, incidents remain unreported and sexual harassment remains a prevalent issue.
Ultimately, even though it is important to acknowledge the significance of the #metoo movement, we must also recognise its limitations in failing to be a global movement. We must also acknowledge that regardless of how frustrating the lack of progress in eradicating gender discrimination in countries such as the UK can be, there are countries within Europe, not to mention the rest of the world, where women have to endure a far more arduous position. Our duty as feminists is to understand and encourage each other, and so we must look beyond the advancements of campaigns such as #metoo in places like the UK and America and consider how we can support women who don’t have the same privileges that living in these societies grants us.
Illustration by Mae Farrow.