When Sofia Bekatorou, a Greek sailing gold medallist in the 2004 Olympics, 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.
Her account – and the outpouring of support it provoked – prompted dozens of actors, singers, athletes and students to come forward in Greece’s delayed “#MeToo” moment, shaking the arts establishment and piling on pressure for change.
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. Until now.
“When Bekatorou opened up, all the memories awoke,” Lydia Servou, a 44-year-old singer who wrote an account on Facebook of being abused in 1992, told Reuters. “It’s time for Greece to change this.”
The assault detailed by Bekatorou took place in 1998, too long ago under Greece’s statute of limitations for a criminal case to be brought.
But 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.
The head of the National Theatre resigned this month following accusations of harassment in media reports, which he has rejected.
The leftist opposition has demanded Culture Minister Lina Mendoni should follow him.
On Friday, she said she and all ministry services would cooperate with the investigation and urged punishment for the perpetrators. “Catharsis is not an easy thing, it’s a tough process,” she said.
Breaking the ‘chain of silence’
For years, actors have been “at the mercy” of any person with power in a once flourishing industry – battered by a decade-long financial crisis and now Covid-19 shutdowns – where young people are competing for increasingly scare opportunities, said Aris Laskos, general secretary of the Greek actors’ union.
“They enter a labor market which has fallen apart, on terms which are horrific and are forced to tolerate things,” he said, calling for more transparency and reform.
But while the arts sector may have garnered most of the headlines, campaigners say the culture of silence the accounts describe is far more widespread.
According to a November survey by Actionaid, 85 percent of female respondents said they have experienced sexual harassment at work. Another poll last month by ProRata found more than 90% of those harassed or abused did not believe they could get any legal redress.
A report by the Greek non-profit organization KMOP found that more than half of the respondents said there were no measures in place in their workplace to prevent such incidents.
In response, the conservative government has promised to revise the law on sexual crimes.
It says it will also introduce reforms encouraging athletes to report incidents and strengthening their representation in sports federation boards, make sex education mandatory in schools and set up a code of conduct for state organisations in the arts.
Deputy Labor Minister Maria Syrengela said the government also aims to ratify the International Labor Organization convention against violence and harassment.
“It’s time we changed mindset, mentality, respected each other, taught our children differently,” she told Reuters. “This was a taboo issue… the chain of silence has been broken.”