LONDON – When sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein surfaced last year, the #MeToo movement was ignited in the United States — a phenomenon that would soon reverberate around the planet in surprising, sometimes profound, often disappointing ways.
In the year since the New York Times and the New Yorker published their first allegations against Weinstein, the global conversation about sexual harassment — and worse — has shifted, but the lasting impact of the moment remains unclear.
From Stockholm to Seoul, from Toronto to Tokyo, a torrent of accusations has poured forth. The stories had always been there, of course, but with every new #MeToo revelation, activists said, the isolation and shame that victims often experience began to ebb.
Survivors spoke out, and many were taken seriously. Powerful men lost their jobs. A few went to prison. How diverse societies — some liberal, others conservative — saw sexual harassment seemed to be changing.
But for all the early anticipation that things had changed forever, in many countries the #MeToo movement either fizzled or never took flight.
In Britain, shortly after the Weinstein allegations emerged, attention quickly turned to the Palace of Westminster, or “Pestminster,” as it was dubbed by the press. Claims were made against British politicians, including Michael Fallon, who resigned as defense secretary, and Damian Green, who stepped down as the de facto deputy prime minister.
Public figures in London who drank too much and got “handsy at parties” were called out. Politicians vowed to take action, but campaigners have questioned the commitment.
“Have the two main political parties sufficiently changed their structures, rules and culture to stamp out sexual harassment? I am not so sure,” wrote Jane Merrick, a British journalist who went public with a charge of sexual harassment against Fallon, who Merrick said lunged at her for a forced kiss.
It wasn’t just politicians under the glare, but media brand names, celebrities and members of the power elite. The Financial Times sent an undercover reporter to the black-tie Presidents Club Charity Dinner, where all-male guests harassed the female “hostesses,” pulling the women onto their laps and demanding they drink more.
The Old Vic theater in London revealed it had received 20 complaints of “inappropriate behavior” by Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey after it launched an investigation. The artistic powerhouse, where Spacey served as artistic director for 11 years, recently announced it had joined a number of cultural organizations in training staff to help those being bullied or abused.
Politicians fell as a result of the #MeToo reckoning.
In South Korea, An Hee-jung, a regional governor and presidential contender, sensationally resigned after his secretary accused him of raping her on business trips. He was recently found not guilty of sexual assault, but prosecutors said they would appeal. After the verdict, An apologized and said he’d try to be “born again.”
In Japan, a journalist accused a top bureaucrat in Japan’s Finance Ministry of harassment. He resigned but denied the accusation. Equally telling was how the journalist was treated — and ignored — by her own TV network.
Japan’s Newspaper Workers’ Union complained, “Female reporters have had to suffer silently, despite being subjected to humiliating and mortifying treatment.”
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Keyes, left his post last month after a New York City politician, Rebecca Salazar, publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her.
Keyes denied the allegations, but they spurred more than a dozen other women to come forward.
“Of course it had an impact here,” said Galia Wolloch, president of Naamat, Israel’s largest NGO working for the advancement of women. A former Israeli president, Moshe Katsav, served five years in prison for rape, but until #MeToo, such cases were the exception, Wolloch said.
In other countries, the movement barely caused a ripple. In Russia, sub-Saharan Africa and China, the #MeToo movement has struggled to take off.
Feminism has a complicated history in Russia. For decades, the very word has been scorned by average Russian women, who saw it as a Western-derived attack on their notions of femininity. Women’s rights movements have often felt superfluous in Russia, where women gained many freedoms — such as the right to vote and access to legal abortion — during the Communist era, decades ahead of their Western counterparts.
When the Weinstein scandal broke last year, the reaction from Russians, including both men and women, was largely one of victim-shaming. A slew of Russian actresses of all ages came out in support of Weinstein, and a group of women stripped naked in front of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hoisting a sign saying “Harvey Weinstein Welcome to Russia.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, the only high-profile accusations explicitly inspired by #MeToo have been in South Africa, a liberal outlier on the continent, and haven’t resulted in investigations.
That is partly because the movement for women’s rights faces different battles in Africa than in the West. Studies across the continent find that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by women’s intimate partners, while assaults by strangers or acquaintances are relatively rare. In some African cultures, genital mutilation, child marriage and polygamy are still widely practiced, and in conflict zones trafficking and rape as a tool of war have been well-documented.
“Kenyan women are not waiting for #MeToo to bring them liberation because we are responding to a totally different context,” said Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan political analyst. “We will see our own local responses as access to information grows and women begin to agitate more for change. Our struggles will be different.”
Women’s rights campaigners say that women coming forward and telling their stories can accomplish only so much and that governments and businesses must do more stamp out harassment.
“A year on, we are seeing a lot of people questioning the movement and whether it’s changed anything,” said Laura Bates, the British author of “Misogynation: The True Scale of Sexism.”
“Instead,” she said, “the question we really need to be asking is: Who takes the baton from the brave survivors who have done such a great service in speaking out?”
In many parts of the world, #MeToo has “changed the ecosystem that has normalized violence against women as ‘That’s life, get on with it,’ ” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of U.N. Women, who was in Buenos Aires meeting with activists from Argentina’s #NiUnaMenos (Not one [woman] less) movement.
“It has allowed more women than normal to come out,” she said. “But nowhere near enough.”