By Nita Bhalla and Inna Lazareva
Nairobi/Yaounde — Campaigners said the fact those accused of sexual violence were rarely held to account discouraged women from speaking out.
Ugandan parliamentarian Sylvia Rwabwogo knows only too well the anguish, fear and paranoia of being stalked incessantly.
For almost a year, her stalker phoned her and sent hundreds of text messages declaring his undying love - telling her she could never belong to anyone else. A knock on the door or unknown phone call would make her panic he was coming for her.
"I told him to stop calling and I blocked his number but he would just call and text from another number. For months, I was confined to my home. I was scared to go to work or even the supermarket," Rwabwogo, 42, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"It took eight months before I reported the harassment to the police as I was worried I would not be taken seriously and the media would blow up the issue and sensationalise it."
Rwabwogo was right - and the backlash was severe.
Not only was she ridiculed by fellow politicians, local media and the public for "making a big issue out of nothing", she was accused of ruining the life of a "love-struck" man by seeking justice for the trauma.
Women's rights campaigners say fear of backlash is one of the main reasons why the #MeToo movement has been more of murmur than an outcry in African nations.
Although women and girls face a plethora of threats - ranging from child marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual and domestic violence, campaigners say, few are able to speak out fearing they will be blamed, criticised and stigmatised.
"We witnessed #MeToo in pockets across Africa - especially with university students in some countries speaking out about being forced to have sex with lecturers," said Agnes Odhiambo, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"But it has been slower to take off in Africa. Women are still shamed for speaking about sexual violence. The retaliation they face can be brutal and their character is assassinated - and yet there is little support available to them."
SLOW, BUT NOT ABSENT
The #MeToo movement that began in the United States in late 2017, in response to accusations of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry, has emboldened women from Britain and France to India and Iran to speak out.
Tens of thousands have taken to social media recounting their experiences of being verbally abused, groped, molested and raped by bosses, teachers, colleagues and family.
Top company chief executives, actors, journalists, politicians and celebrities have been accused of sexually harassing colleagues and subordinates - leading to sackings, resignations and court cases filed against many powerful men.
In Africa, where women across Africa have been protesting over physical and sexual abuse for years, the movement - while not totally absent - has been much slower to take off, say campaigners.
"I would agree it's not been as big on the continent as it probably was in the U.S. and in other parts of the world," said Comfort Mussa, Cameroonian journalist who started an online campaign against sexual harassment in the media industry.
"But at the same time, the movement is not insignificant.
"The feedback we've had as media women and media houses in Cameroon is amazing. There has never been a time in our history where we've had more than 20 female journalists talking about the same thing at the same time and coming out to say #Metoo."
In countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, the movement prompted female university students to protest against sexual violence by their lecturers on social media.
The African Union had its own version of #MeToo when an internal probe in November revealed that short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns were being sexually harassed by their superiors.
The investigation found 44 cases and said the young women were being "exploited for sex in exchange for jobs".
Even so, the cases have been few and far between - due largely to fear of a backlash, but also to a sense that sexual harassment claims are not taken seriously.
"Women in Africa have been at the receiving end of most grievous gender-based violations - from rape to femicide - to the extent that there's a little bit of desensitization when it comes to sexual harassment," said Judy Gitau, a human rights lawyer with campaign group Equality Now.
"Although it is as serious as every other form of gender-based violence, women here often see it at the lower end of the spectrum and would rather just let it go than deal with it."
Campaigners said the fact those accused of sexual violence were rarely held to account also discouraged women from speaking out.
Many countries do not have laws specifically against sexual harassment in the workplace, while most corporates, government bodies and universities do not have guidelines or committees to deal with such cases, they said.
For Rwabwogo, the nightmare continues.
While her stalker was sentenced to two years in jail for cyberstalking in July last year. He has appealed against the verdict.
But she remains defiant.
"I suffered first because of this man, and then because of how people trivialized the whole thing," she said.
"But I have no regrets. I encourage women to seek support from other people such as women's rights groups. We all have to stand together and speak out. Only then, this will end."
- Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Claire Cozens