An Instagram account compiling testimonies in an effort to give a voice to victims of sexual violence in bars and nightclubs has been overwhelmed with messages from young women wanting to share their experiences.
The social media account called “Balance ton bar” was created in the wake of women sharing testimonies of being drugged and sexually assaulted by an employee at two bars in Ixelles, and aimed to spread awareness about which bars and nightclubs to avoid. However, it is now receiving more messages than its creators can keep up with.
"Creating this page has proven that this is a systemic issue, that they are not just isolated cases. I have not even published one-fifth of the number of testimonies I received," Maïté Meeûs, a 23-year-old woman who created the account, told The Brussels Times.
"At this point, I can't keep count. The last time I did count, there were more than 200 testimonies. I also can't keep up with the number of messages I received," she said.
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Although testimonies were being shared on other Instagram accounts, they were usually showcased on the social media platform's stories feature, meaning they were only visible for 24 hours.
"There was no online space where these stories were given exposure for a longer time. I told myself that, in light of the El Café and Waff situation, this was the 'perfect' moment to give people a voice and to encourage women to share their experiences," Meeûs said.
She stressed that the account, whose name is derived from earlier hashtags like "Balance ton violeur" – which means "unmask your assailant" – offers concrete proof that there is a tremendous number of women who fall victims to such abuse.
Meeûs highlighted that the issue "has been normalised for so long," something she saw reflected in her response to the nature of the testimonies.
"Although I was very shocked about the sheer number of messages I received, the testimonies themselves didn't shock me anymore, because I think they all tell stories that as young women, we have heard multiple times," she said, adding that the fact every young woman knows someone who experienced such violence, was one of the reasons she wanted to bring change.
Time for concrete action
Aside from giving women a platform to share their experiences, Meeûs is determined to follow up this initiative with concrete action.
"What has always been lacking with these actions, for example, the #MeToo movement, is that women were given a voice, but it was not really followed by concrete action being taken to change these issues. Through no fault of the women leading those movements, of course, it's the fault of political inaction," she said.
Since launching the account, Meeûs has been in contact with managers of Brussels nightclubs and bars that were mentioned in the testimonies.
"The response differed hugely when it comes to their willingness to make a change. Some are very proactive, and they are reaching out to me, saying they want to play a role in improving this situation," she said.
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However, Meeûs lamented others remain silent when their bars or staff are included in testimonies. "One establishment, Jeux d'Hiver in Brussels' Bois de la Cambre, published a press release that was very insensitive, recommending that girls should eat before going out like it was their fault."
"Some just don't seem to hear or understand what the victims are saying and the pain they are feeling. It is another violation on top of what they already have experienced," Meeûs said.
On Monday, the representatives of every feminist collective in Brussels are meeting to collect ideas and thoughts on what measures can be implemented. Another meeting will then be organised with the management of various bars and nightclubs.
"We are also expecting support, including financial support from governments. I am going to meet with politicians who said they would allocate the necessary budgets for that," she said.
On Wednesday last week, various politicians gathered to discuss the situation and what can be done to help victims, as well as what concrete measures to implement to avoid these situations.
"Eradicating the scourge of sexual violence is one of the Government's priorities. Shame must change sides and impunity must end," said federal Minister of Justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne, who took part in the meeting.
Meeûs celebrated the fact that a plan of action is being created, including all actors who can make a change and bearing in mind the victims and their experiences.
"By doing these things and meeting with these actors, we can really start moving in the right direction, at least step by step."
"I know we are not going to solve the problem completely, but if we can diminish the number of these testimonies as much as possible, I think we need to take this opportunity to do so," she concluded.