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Why I didn’t report

When the glamour is out of the picture, do all women still have your support in the #MeToo movement?

Ezimma Chigbo | 04 Oct 2018

An image of a black woman smiling by a river.

Image credit: Ezimma Chigbo.

I don’t remember the exact age I was when I first experienced sexual abuse, but I know I was a young child. I also know that the first time would not be the last.

With the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport trending on Twitter, I’ve spent some time thinking about my varied experiences of sexual abuse. Particularly the sexual abuse I experienced in my childhood. I have thought about where my story and the stories of others like me fit into global movements such as #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo, championing an end to sexual violence against women.

As a youth practitioner who specialises in working with young women, I am regularly faced with disclosures of sexual abuse. I feel a deep sadness and solidarity with each article, tweet or video online of women telling their stories.

I recognise the progress which has enabled these important stories to be shared, yet I can’t help but ask myself.

Does this progress penetrate the environments that the young women I work with manoeuvre? If so, are they readily recognised and rewarded for speaking out?


I remember watching Oprah’s Golden Globe speech up to ten times the week it was released, Mesmerised by her words and the conviction with which she delivered them. Witnessing Oprah’s address as the first black woman to be recognised with the Cecil B. de Mille Award was a massive moment for me.

As I listened to Oprah’s words of empowerment, I thought about the young women I’ve worked with and what this moment in history represents for them.

I pondered the impact of growing up in this era where women of all shades and professions unapologetically claim spaces so often denied to us.

Women have always been given the short straw; black and brown women are even shorter ones. These are the facts in Oprah Hollywood and the marginalised communities where I’ve worked with many insightful, resilient young women.

Seeing Oprah being recognised for her achievements felt like a familiar tale of resistance and triumph; it felt personal.

Beyond the protest of her words, I was invigorated by the fact she used this opportunity to share this part of her story on a platform which forced the world to listen. This act, and others like it, laid the foundation for the thousands of women to participate in #WhyIDidntReport.

Women and the criminal justice system

In my work, I encounter young women who have experienced sexual abuse. These women are often labelled complex, problematic, hard to reach or high risk by their families, schools, social services, the criminal justice system and various other organisations claiming to serve them.

I encounter most of these women after they have had some involvement with the criminal justice system. For the young women who do disclose cases of sexual abuse, I am often the first adult they have trusted enough to share their experiences with.

Not only are these young women not reporting sexual crimes committed against them, but they also are not accessing the support provided by online movements such as #WhyIDidntReport.

These young women usually live with their trauma undiagnosed. Despite this, they have developed mechanisms for combatting traditional forms of patriarchy, which are deeply embedded in our society, as well as the new and creative ways patriarchy uses the internet and social media to further its cause. 
I’ve witnessed young women share tips on the best ways to avoid sexual exploitation and remain safe on the streets. They speak out to defend other young women who are being treated unfairly. Despite the high levels of destructive conflict in their lives, these young women continually inspire and challenge me.

In my work, some of the most thought-provoking and stimulating conversations about gender issues and female empowerment are with these young women. They share openly about their experiences of sexual violence and, in their own ways, say me too. 

Spaces for truth

My work with young women creates safe spaces for them to explore complex topics such as sexual abuse. I have firsthand experience of the transformational power behind this work. I’ve watched as different groups allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of each other. They affirm and support one another with compassion, empathy and a lack of judgment. I am proud to witness them embody many of the characteristics I look for in allies fighting to make the world fairer for women.

Oprah expressed her pride in all women who were courageous enough to tell their personal stories. The public figures who championed the #MeToo campaign by speaking out about their experiences of sexual harassment. This sparked a long overdue discussion about the levels of sexual violence women experience in Hollywood. In turn, this brought to light the inescapable nature of sexual violence for women all over the world.

I will not underestimate the importance of these women using their influence this way. I will ask, what platforms are being provided for the young women I work with to communicate their experiences? Who is listening to them? Who is getting behind their campaigns?

Neither celebrity nor celebrated

Celebrities can communicate their stories to vast audiences and have the resources to effectively organise and build networks that support them and others. Keeping the momentum going online and offline is important to ensure more women are comfortable engaging with the themes explored in #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo.

But the truth is, these campaigns may never reach the young women I work with.

These women live very different lives from celebrities. This does not mean they are without their ways of demonstrating solidarity with each other in their communities. They have established mechanisms for supporting themselves and each other. I have seen these women share their stories with a grace and humour that leaves me in awe every single time.

This is why I will continue to advocate for spaces for these women to tell their stories, and organise and build supportive networks. Society may not afford them the same status or power as women in Hollywood, but this should not be a barrier to them accessing services that allow them to safely explore what womanhood means for them to echo a line in Oprah’s speech, What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.

Will we listen?

In my experience, the voices of these young women are just as compelling as Oprah’s. Unfortunately, safe spaces are seldom provided for them to share their stories and begin the process of healing and reconciliation. I am hopeful to witness men and women from different walks of life get behind the high-profile campaigns working to create a fairer world for women.

Yet, I have been led to wonder, beyond the retweets on Twitter or status updates on Facebook, how far does this support go?

How many of us are willing to look beyond the destructive labels placed on the young women I encounter daily and hear what they have to say? Do all women still have your support when the glitz and glamour are out of the picture?

I hope so.