HeForShe: The Silence Breakers


He For She. Two million Ghanaian boys and men mobilized to pledge support in the fight for gender equality. That’s this campaign’s aim. It was launched on the 2nd day of a High Level Africa Roundtable on Mobilizing Support and Accelerating Implementation of the SDGs.

It comes in the week that Joy FM radio did a segment on teachers sexually harassing girl students from JHS and above, which ignited outrage. And it comes in the week that Tanzania’s president pardoned two child rapists – men who had been convicted and sentenced for raping ten girls, aged six to eight.

This set of circumstances is crucial.

This launch offers an important opportunity that must be seized by a nation.

Ghana needs to teach men and boys to become silence breakers when it comes to violence against girls and women.

Time magazine’s PERSON of THE YEAR was given to ‘The Silence Breakers’, a group of American women who had broken their silence regarding sexual harassment, sexual violence and rape by powerful men. It was called the #MeToo movement, started by African American organizer and activist, Tarana Burke, seeking solidarity and community as she worked with women of colour survivors of sexual violence in the US.

Ghana, it is time for men and boys to stop being bystanders and become silence breakers. Our bystander culture teaches boys and men to watch, listen or be present when violence is being perpetuated against girls and women – and do nothing.

The HeForShe campaign is an opportunity to transform bystander culture.

I am deeply passionate about this. When I lived in New York, I led a campaign together with a Chicago organizer, Mariame Kaba, to engage men in breaking their silence and speaking out in support of a woman who had been incarcerated after she defended herself from a violent husband. The campaign was called #31forMARISSA. We used social media and traditional media and worked with men inviting them to write public letters of support and to break their own silence about the men who inflicted violence on their mothers, sisters and friends.

This campaign, started by two women, attracted major media partnerships. Its success gained national headlines and media coverage across the country including CNN, MSNBC and HuffPostLive to name just a few. It was a campaign led by women, involving and engaging men. That is part of my work that I call ‘Emotional Justice’. Equally, importantly, it encouraged men to shift their lens regarding violence against women, focus on what action they could take, and become a silence breaker.

Global cultures of patriarchy teach men to support other men when it comes to violence against women. What if we asked men: why don’t you stop? What if we asked men: why don’t you help stop other men?

Boys and men are taught to point fingers at women asking the same questions, over and over.  If he’s violent, why don’t you leave? If a teacher is harassing you, why don’t you report it? If your uncle is sexually abusing you or has defiled you – why don’t you go to the police?

What if the people you should report to are perpetrators of that violence?

In February this year, 13 students from Jukwaa Krobo Junior High School (JHS) in the Central Region left school due to what they called the incessant sexual harassment by their teachers. They claimed this harassment made it impossible for them to study. The story, published online, named a man the girls identified as a particular culprit. The story ended with school authorities saying they would investigate and sanction the guilty teachers.

That was February. What happened post that investigation? Where are those 13 girls? Are they back at school? What happened to the man? Is he in prison? What about other teachers? What about the school’s culture?

In June 2014, Tumu Senior High Technical School girl students reported a culture of sexual harassment and sexual violence led by male teachers that included the principal. The headmaster, failed to sanction teachers using grades and girls’ commitment to education to coerce them into sex. In that story, 100 former and current students reported the Headmaster as culpable of sexual violence and sanctioning a culture that perpetuated such violence. A teacher named in the story was awarded District Best Teacher. Let’s sit with that. What do students and other teachers learn when an award is given to teachers allegedly contributing to sexual harassment?

In HeForShe, the call must be to open the closed minds of boys and men complicit in a culture that normalizes sexual violence against girls – especially in schools. Such a culture punishes the girls who speak out, threatening their education and future while protecting guilty men with silence.

This is no longer about individual culprits, this is about an institutionalized culture.

Culture teaches men that women are responsible for the sexual and physical violence inflicted on them by boys and men. Men shield rather than shame, they are silent when they must speak up and they are complicit when they must take action.

And this, for me, is what HeForShe must become.  In Ghana, boys and men must break their silence on sexual violence and violence against women. This campaign provides that opportunity.

There are examples of success.

The ‘No Means No Worldwide’ campaign goes into schools to teach boys and girls intervention skills when it comes to violence. They teach girls assertiveness, how to say no effectively and how to defend themselves. They teach boys intervention, speaking up and not staying silent. In Nairobi, they are teaching consent classes. Such classes have reduced rape by 50%.

I too launched a consent project via my multi-media production company. #theCONSENTconvo used media as a tool to encourage men to speak about how they learned about consent and to enable them to see that they are taught entitlement of women’s bodies.

The HeForShe mobilization must enable a culture of reimagining consent for boys and men when it comes to the bodies of girls and women.

Boys and men can unlearn what has been taught that harms rather than helps.

I am a citizen of a nation where my President has, I think, mentioned the importance of gender equality or empowering women, at almost every speech he makes.

So, when we say there is no political will, in this moment that is not true.

The next question is what strategy, support and resource lies behind the message? The challenge is to not be seduced by the rhetoric of gender equality, nor think that action and transformation occurs solely because a President includes women in his major speeches. That is an important beginning. It matters. It signifies – at least the appearance of – political will. It offers society an opportunity to strategize and implement bold, specific, targeted, focused and resourced action in support of transforming a society that is unsafe for girls and women.

Story after story. We can be more than story-tellers; this is a moment of campaign journalism, impactful investigative journalism and languaging violence accurately. These are – too often unused – tools of this media trade. That requires training and investment.

I ask myself: what is my contribution? It is always easier to be critic rather than contributor. Critical analysis matters. Contribution does too. I am in the media – what is my profession’s contribution here?

This is about connecting dots and campaigning journalism that tells fuller stories.

Media – like all of us – are complicit in the practice of cultures that make men bystanders. Media’s role in HeForShe must be about follow up and follow through. Sadly, shame and exposure are effective tools of change. Media’s eyes must stay on such stories.

We are a society unwilling to grapple with the difficult work of addressing and transforming a culture that teaches men they are entitled to the bodies of girls and women.  If we are going to mobilize men to support women – that is crucial work.

The hardest thing to open is a closed mind. We must do just that.

Let this HeForShe campaign not be a band-aid, or a symbolic pledging that does not manifest in action. HeForShe should not be a slogan, but a call to action. It should be a substantive reckoning with this culture of entitlement. It should comply with a President whose call inspires – and whose call must be matched with a changing culture that serves a nation’s progress.

We are in a moment where we can choose to do this important, challenging work of addressing a culture of complicity that keeps boys and men silent when they should speak up.

To the He For She pledge-taking men and boys of Ghana: become a silence breaker.


Leave a Reply