UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United Nations began campaigning to end violence against women decades ago, but its effort gained little traction — until the outpouring of allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men in Hollywood, the U.S. Congress and boardrooms put the issue on front pages and TV screens around the world.
The U.N. women’s agency now hopes to capitalize on the spotlight.
“This is the moment!” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, said in an interview ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov. 25. “It really has to come out of the woodwork.”
She credits the surge of allegations to the rising power of women who now sit in boardrooms themselves and are sympathetic to women who are bringing complaints.
“In the past, the story would have just been shoved under the carpet,” she said. Now, she said, “women are being believed more and more.”
Sexual harassment, abuse and rape have been taking place as long as women have gone out to work, Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “Why has it taken so long before so many women have courage to speak out?”
Answering her own question, she said that besides more women being in positions of power, there are better regulations and policies, and she pointed to “the increase in the bravery of the women to actually complain about the perpetrators who are otherwise powerful.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka said she believes the issue has become more visible in recent years because perpetrators are facing repercussions such as lost jobs and lawsuits and also because high-profile men are being hit with allegations.
She singled out the late British entertainer Jimmy Savile, described by police in 2013 as a sexual predator who allegedly committed 214 offenses, including 34 rapes, over more than half a century, the majority against youngsters under age 18. The charges emerged after Savile died in 2011.
She also pointed to pioneering black actor Bill Cosby, once known as “America’s Dad,” who has been accused by more than 50 women of forced sexual contact over decades and is facing a second trial — and to Harvey Weinstein, fired from his movie company after a New York Times expose of sexual harassment and assault allegations against him that was followed by similar tales from more than 100 women. And she noted the claims against the Republicans’ Senate candidate in Alabama, Roy Moore, who is alleged to have gone after young girls. All three men have strenuously denied wrong-doing.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said a staggering number of women have come forward to accuse a growing number of powerful men. She said the women have never met and they “could not have concocted a story,” and that makes it difficult to say that “these women are lying.”
“The drama and the publicity of the consequences for those who have become abusers, literally in the last couple of months, is shifting away this whole concept of not being believed,” she said.
“In fact when people don’t believe you, the spotlight is on them for daring to disbelieve a woman,” she said. “And I think that’s a good thing.”
But Mlambo-Ngcuka said women still face an uphill struggle, especially in many countries where there aren’t a lot of powerful women to support them. She said much more needs to be done to combat sexual misconduct and other forms of violence against women globally.