Feeling angry about gender-based violence? Good. #MeToo

So much has happened recently that feels like progress when it comes to ensuring the right of women and girls to live free from abuse. Millions of people across the world have harnessed the power of social media to demand an end to violence and harassment against women and girls using hashtags (in English) such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, #YouOkSis, #SayHerName, #MosqueMeToo, #23Days, #OneBillionRising and #EverydaySexism.

Powerful men, from Hollywood film producers to senior politicians and humanitarian aid bosses, have been named and shamed for crimes such as sexual misconduct, assault and child abuse. In the United States, more than US$20 million has been raised to establish a Time’s Up legal defence fund for lower-income women seeking justice for workplace sexual harassment and assault. And this year should finally see the first steps towards the implementation of an international legal standard to help prevent, identify and remedy violence in the workplace, with a strong focus on the gender.

There are countless other examples.

This is progress.

So why am I still angry?

I am angry because 35 per cent of women and girls over the age of 15 have experienced physical violence at home, in public spaces or at work. That’s 818 million people – more than the entire population of Europe. The abuse cuts across the intersections of nationality, race, ethnicity, class, income level, religion, migration status, disability, sexual orientation, age and occupation.

However, as the most fundamental expression of the unequal power dynamics between men and women, gender-based violence (which also affects men who do not conform to dominant gender stereotypes or gender roles) hits the most marginalised people in society the hardest.

For example, structural poverty combined with systematic racism means that racialised women everywhere are extremely vulnerable to all forms of violence and harassment.

I’m angry because nearly half of all women killed in 2012 lost their lives at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member. I am angry that for all the attention marshalled by social media hashtags, the perpetrators of violence rarely face prosecution, even when the people involved are famous. Yes, high-profile careers have ended and reputations have been damaged but what about justice?

There’s plenty more cause for fury. All over the world our reproductive rights are under attack. More than 200 million women and girls are victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). Fifteen million girls of primary school age will never have the opportunity to learn how to read or write. Working women in every country and in every sector are under-valued, under-paid and engaged in unpaid care work within their homes.

There are more than 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide, 71 per cent of which are women and girls. Women make up 99 per cent of the victims of forced commercial sexual exploitation. We are overrepresented in occupations and areas with high exposure to violence, such as the garment and textile industry, domestic work and informal work. All over the world, female human rights defenders are targeted and attacked for standing up for gender equality, for land rights, for racial justice, for economic justice, for labour rights, for LGBTQI rights, for the environment, for a free press, for peace and for dignity.

Those who speak out against the physical, sexual, psychological and economic harm they endure often pay a terrible price. Victims face slurs, shame, loss of income, more violence and even loss of life. For every woman that has shared her story on social media, there are thousands more for whom silence was the only option.

And despite this, the sheer number of women stepping forward to share their stories proves that we are not just talking about a few bad apples. The problem of violence against women isn’t personal, it’s structural. It draws from a deep well of patriarchy that’s further tainted by a global economic model that commodifies the exploitation of women’s labour while eroding the rights and protections of all workers. And while we mustn’t underestimate the commitment of those sustaining themselves on these toxic waters, nor should we underestimate the determination of the women and men who are fighting for everybody’s right to live free from violence, abuse and harassment.

The true power of this moment will lie in our ability to harness this rare, sustained global attention on the issue of gender-based violence to support the work of the grassroots activists, community-based organisations, journalists, academics, trade unions, NGOs and social movements who were doing this work well before the hashtags started trending and will continue doing it long after they stop.

Their work needs to be well-funded and widely supported but it also requires the proper legal framework. That’s why the proposed International Labour Organization (ILO) instrument on Violence and Harassment against Women and Men in the World of Work is so important. There are currently 189 ILO conventions setting out basic principles and rights at work; not one of them focuses on gender-based violence.

This omission is not redressed at a national level, as most countries do not have adequate laws to prevent gender-based violence in the world of work. By ratifying an ILO Convention accompanied by a Recommendation, governments will have a clear definition of violence and harassment, as well as guidance on how to address it, all while making a commitment to ensure that their national laws comply with the standard.

Beyond the Convention and in all discussions about gender-based violence, we have to broaden the discussion. Essentially, we need to stop framing this as a women’s issue. Patriarchy is a system of oppression that ultimately imprisons us all. We are all responsible for its dismantlement but as its primary beneficiaries, men have the greatest responsibility to question and change their thinking and actions, as well as that of other men.

So, while I am angry, I am cautiously optimistic. This #MeToo moment comes in a long line of other “watershed moments” in the fight against gender-based violence, but with the political will to bolster our collective action – and anger – this moment could give birth to the peace, justice and equality we all deserve.

Between 14 February and International Women’s Day on 8 March, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is leading the call for an ILO Convention to stop gender-based violence at work using the hashtag #23Days. Find out more at www.ituc-csi.org/23days