March is Women’s History Month, and American women have come a long way since the early days of fighting for the right to vote. But women around the nation and around the globe are still fighting for equality in many realms, including in education, technology, equal pay, and campus sexual assault, and beyond. All month long, msnbc.com is highlighting female leaders who are fighting for the women’s rights issues of 2015.
Through extensive use of social media strategizing, online organizing and blogging, Wagatwe Wanjuki successfully launched a petition that led the Department of Education to hold schools accountable for failing to uphold Title IX, legislation aimed at curbing gender discrimination in schools. The Department of Education found that Tufts University, Wanjuki's alma mater, "failed to provide a prompt and equitable response to complaints of sexual harassment/violence as required by Title IX."
Tufts responded to the Education Department’s finding, saying in a statement it was “surprised and disappointed that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has declared the University to be out of compliance with Title IX. Tufts University is deeply committed to the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. We have in place and fully support policies and procedures that comply with Title IX, are consistent with the significant guidance documents issued by the department, and effectively serve our students, faculty and staff.”
Wanjuki, who says she is a survivor of sexual assault, has continued to use the Internet to speak out against sexual assault. After Washington Post columnist George Will wrote that being the victim of sexual assault was “a coveted status that confers privileges,” she fired back with #SurvivorPrivilege, a nationally trending hashtag that prompted survivors to share their stories of sexual assaults. Now, Wanjuki spends her time going to college campuses to speak out against campus sexual assault.
Wanjuki answered our questions about her work to make the world safer for women
MSNBC: What role has the Internet and new media played in your activism?
Wagatwe Wanjuki: The Internet and new media has been integral to my activism on a variety levels. It helped me find my voice and gain the confidence to speak my truth. When I was younger, I was painfully shy and struggled to connect with others in person. So when my family first got the Internet I was immediately drawn to it because it let me connect and communicate with others through writing. When I was frustrated with Tufts … I created a blog to tell my story on my own terms. Since then, I’ve gone from blogging anonymously about my experience to going on national television to share my story. It wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t start off online.
The Internet has been an invaluable tool for connecting with like-minded organizations and other activists, which is why I think the movement has really taken off recently. Activists were able to exchange information, best practices, our stories and support online. I know an amazing network of activists who are both my friends and heroes. I would have never met any of them if it weren’t for the Internet. They’ve been really helpful in being able to practice self care, which is something I try to prioritize as an activist.
New media has also just been a great amplifier of the work. Thanks to the Internet, my friends and I got over 180,000 signatures on a petition supporting our asks, which lead to in-person meetings with White House and Department of Education officials. Using the web has been invaluable in getting the message out there to people who wouldn’t have heard anything about this issue in their day-to-day.
What’s it like to have a hashtag or a social media campaign that you started prompt people to share stories or have conversations about sexual violence they might not otherwise share?
It’s surreal. It felt bittersweet because I was excited to help spark a conversation about an important topic and provide a space for people to share their truth, but it was also heartbreaking that so many people had their own stories of surviving sexual violence to share.
What is your response to people say there is no campus rape epidemic?
First of all, I ask to see their peer-reviewed study that supports that claim. Secondly, I say that at the end of the day schools need to do their ethical and legal duty to prevent and properly respond to rape on campus. Whether it’s one in five or one in 500 students, the civil right to an education free of sex violence remains the same and must be honored.
What’s it like to know that your activism has actually shaped legislation and policy?
It feels even more surreal than having a hashtag trend nationally! It makes me so happy to contribute to a movement to make campuses across the country safer. Watching leaders from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to the President Obama publicly condemn campus rape and urge for real change is a really awe-inspiring and affirming. I became a campus-rape activist because I didn’t want anyone to go through what I’ve experienced. It feels great to see concrete progress towards making that happen.
What’s the biggest thing you wish people knew about campus sexual assault?
Campus sexual assault isn’t about so-called blurred lines, a hook-up culture, alcohol or regretted sex. If schools actually recognized the prevalence of rape in their communities and punished rapists appropriately, campuses would be safer.
What is your hope for women of the next generation?
I hope that women of the next generation will be able to attend school under the leadership of administrators who won’t see sexual assault as a public relations issue, but rather a safety issue they can address. And I really hope that survivors of all identities of color, queer, low-income, with disabilities, trans, gender nonconforming, from community college, in relationships, etc. – will find it easier have their stories heard.