2018 points to a new wave of citizen activism

When looking back at 2017, it is hard to lose sight of the fact that restrictions on fundamental freedoms were imposed at an ever-growing pace, even in countries that believed themselves to be immune to authoritarian temptations. However, along with increasing restrictions on civil society rights, we can also see civil society fighting back and continuing to claim rights.

In fact, a renewed fightback against rising repression is one of the key trends identified by the 2018 State of Civil Society Report released last month by global civil society alliance CIVICUS. Now in its seventh year, this annual report reviews the major events that involved and impacted civil society in 2017.

Highlighted trends include a rise in personal rule that continued to usurp the rule of law, attacks on independent media and online freedom, a retreat from multilateralism and polarising politics – all of which continue to have a significant impact on civil society as we speak.

Fortunately for all of us who inhabit this planet, for every authoritarian move to restrict hard-won freedoms, a defensive reaction can also be identified to preserve them.

Long used to the fact that rights and freedoms are never gained once and for all, progressive civil society actors have proved their determination not to let long-term gains slip away at the first unfortunate turn of events.

And so, in 2017, they mobilised massively against corruption in South Korea, Romania, and the Dominican Republic. Citizens succeeded in imposing a ban on metallic mining in El Salvador while placing themselves in the firing line to expose human rights abuses in Myanmar, Syria, and Yemen.

Last year, we saw the mobilisation of ordinary people as first responders in the face of earthquakes in Mexico and hurricanes in Puerto Rico as other activists worked in international forums to ban nuclear weapons and hold transnational corporations accountable for human rights abuses.

The people took to the streets wherever electoral results were ignored and journalists or human rights defenders were assassinated; and overall, they kept the major issues of our times on the agenda, including climate change, poverty, exclusion, and entrenched gender-based discrimination.

What we’ve learned from the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns

At the vanguard of the struggle for rights was, once again, the women’s movement. Out of a moment of reckoning for a predatory Hollywood movie mogul and the stars he had sexually assaulted and abused with impunity, grew the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, which six months later, still stand as an encouraging example of an innovative movement changing the public conversation for good.

Originally launched by American activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the #MeToo social media campaign went viral in 2017, when Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano used the hashtag in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal. The campaign went viral at lightning speed: within 24 hours of the first tweet, Facebook reported that there had been over 12 million posts with the #MeToo hashtag, and 4.7 million people had taken part in a conversation about the issue. The hashtag travelled fast around the world and was adapted into local versions.

While its message spread quickly thanks to technology, #MeToo resonated, penetrated, was appropriated, modified and further disseminated due to the fact that it landed on fertile soil: the one that the global women’s movement had sown for decades, through research and analysis, networking and alliance-building, campaigning, lobbying and engagement with policy-makers at the national, regional and global levels.

In this sense, this campaign was the result of decades’ worth of work by the feminist and women’s rights movement.

As it took off, the campaign made clear the widespread nature of women’s experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, the institutionalised character of sexism and its crippling effect on women’s lives. In turn, the Time’s Up campaign vowed to democratise the issue by encouraging women in more disadvantaged positions to report sexual harassment and seek justice. By then, not only had sexual harassment become widely unacceptable and inexcusable, but it had also become a crucial part of the debate about overall gender inequalities as well as power and wealth imbalances.

The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements turned a spotlight on patriarchy and sexual abuse in entertainment, politics and beyond on a scale never seen before. As a result, systemic inequalities came to be recognised as the breeding ground for the abuse and harassment of women, bringing to the fore issues such as the need to increase the number of women in leadership and decision-making positions, guarantee equal pay and opportunity, foster a better work environment and recognise women’s unpaid work.

Although the principle of gender equality that is at the core of feminism is yet to be realised pretty much anywhere, it has advanced enough to make the gender-based inequalities located at the root of abuse an unavoidable issue. Indeed, the very fact that sexual abuse have become unacceptable implies a significant power shift: those on the receiving end of the abuse are now, for the first time, in charge of defining what is acceptable and what is not.

We still have a long way to go, but there’s no going back. #MeToo and Time’s Up have done such a good job in redefining what’s visible, audible and intelligible, that reverting their effect would entail the impossible task of unseeing what we have all, very clearly, already seen.