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GEC #8 Sofia Bekatorou

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Author: Angela Dimou FM Greece – GEC Country Principal

Gender-based violence can happen to anyone, children or adults, regardless of one’s gender orientation or sexual identity. We are living in a moment in history in which traditional power structures are being meaningfully challenged and marginalized voices are speaking out about their experiences. These voices are an attempt to challenge our current heteropatriarchal world. Heteropatriarchy refers to a social and political system where the male gender and heterosexuality exert a dominating influence over other genders and sexual orientation. What these men and women carry out with their testimonies is a real battle against the the power structures run by male élites who continue to reinforce and reify their own dominance, often through very violent means.

The 2013 global review of violence against women made by the World Health Organization was the first study of its kind in history. It estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. In 2017, the Me Too Movement (#Metoo) against sexual harassment and sexual assault ignited in the United States, because of sexual abuse allegations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein. It went viral as a hashtag on social media, like many other hashtag protests in the early 21st century’s rise of digital activism.

While a debate about sexual harassment and abuse has swept the globe in recent years, in Greece, a generally socially conservative country, the old reflex to remain silent on the issue has remained strong. When the Greek sailing gold medallist in the 2005 Olympics, Sofia Bekatorou, opened up last month about being sexually assaulted by a sports official as a 21-year-old, it came as a breakthrough in a country where confronting such abuse has been rare. Now things are changing.

Let’s find out more about the life of this athlete: Σοφία Μπεκατώρου is her Greek name, born 26 December 1977 in Athens. Reserved and soft-spoken woman, whose passion for sailing has enchanted her since she was a child. However, she must immediately deal with the prejudice that profoundly governed this sport: before she could join sailing classes near her home in Athens, the 8 years-old Sofia had to show an instructor she could tie a basic knot properly.

Bekatorou spent her early afternoons in a bathtub-sized sailboat, but the coaches took note of the girl’s determination and on her 12th birthday, she was outperforming her male opponents in various competitions. It was clear that Sofia was already on the way to winning gold medals and becoming a great champion.

The great results are not long in coming: at the 2004 Summer Olympics sailing competition in Athens she won the gold medal in the women’s double-handed dinghy event in the 470 with her pair Emilia Tsoulfa.

After a serious back injury, she won a bronze medal in the yngling keelboat class at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Another very significant event for her sporting but also personal career followed eight years later, because Sofia Bekatorou was the first-ever woman selected as standard-bearer to represent Greece in opening ceremonies at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She dedicated the honor at Maracana Stadium to her older sister, who had died of brain cancer four months earlier.

During an online sports seminar, Sofia Beakatorou made an unexpected statement. Sofia told she was sexually assaulted at the age of 21 by a male official (that she did not name) from the Hellenic Sailing Federation during preparations for the Sydney Olympic Games. It is the country’s first high-profile accusation of sexual assault and abuse of power since the #MeToo movement swept the world in recent years, bringing down powerful figures in the media, politics and sports worlds. Her declarations gained national attention and elicited statements of support for Bekatorou, in particular from the first female president of the country, Katerina Sakellaropoulou

Over the years, despite constantly struggling with the memory of that terrible experience, Sofia managed to become one of the most decorated athletes in Greek history, to have two children and to obtain a degree in psychology.

Bekatarou said she hoped the reaction marked a turning point for Greek society, which often seems resigned to official cronyism and impunity. Thanks to her confession, Greece finally has its #Metoo movement and a conversation about gender roles, discrimination, power dynamics and daily sexism in the country has opened. Her voice encouraged many people who had found themselves in a similar situation to step forward and share their stories too.

A prosecutor has now launched an investigation into reports of violence, sexual harassment or abuse in the arts sector, the focus of many of the new allegations.