This year, International Anti-Street Harassment Week March 18-24 highlighted an important new movement to raise awareness about an issue that affects an extremely high proportion of women and girls every day. This movement to bring attention to harassment by strangers in public spaces is an exciting new focus that anti-violence groups have historically been silent on. While there are a number of organizations, campaigns and events surrounding violence against women and girls, stranger-street harassment is often times left unacknowledged and untouched upon in discussions about crimes that perpetuate the cycle of gender-based violence.
While it is understandable how stranger-street harassment might get lost among crimes like domestic violence, rape, trafficking and femicide, the nature of this harassment is fundamental to our fight against all violence against women. Stranger-street harassment reveals the underlying discriminatory and abusive attitudes still held by many men that a woman is an object and is to be treated like one wherever she goes, whoever she is, at any time of the day.
When I was growing up, the general message I got from adults was that although stranger-street harassment was unpleasant, it was also somewhat accepted as an unfortunate reality. If I was upset about someone looking at me inappropriately, hooting at me from a car while I was jogging, or just outright saying what they’d like “to do with me”, the general message was that it was just “boys being boys” and I should let it go. This reality had a negative impact on me – it meant that I didn’t feel safe in public, especially when I was alone. And sadly, what was not regularly reinforced from women or men was that this reality was unacceptable, that I have every right to be disturbed and upset, and that I should feel empowered to report this person who harassed me, grabbed me, made me feel unsafe.
As I grew up, I began to understand that claims of “boys being boys” was only minimizing harmful, harassing behavior that has deeper implications for sexual assault, exploitation, and abuse. Unfortunately, the attitude that stranger-street harassment is just an unpleasant part of life continues in our conversations with young girls and boys, as well as among adult men and women. For example, a friend called me recently upset and angry about being grabbed on the street by a stranger and she asked me if I thought she was overreacting to what had happened. Although she and I both knew she was not overreacting at all, I realized many people might not agree. If she had talked to any number of people about this male stranger touching her on the shoulder and saying something inappropriate, they very well may have told her that it was a yucky situation, but may not have understood why she was so upset.
Every female on the planet has stories of harassment, with a survey study on the topic showing 99% of women who have endured some form of stranger-street harassment from honking and whistling to being followed and assaulted. By failing to acknowledge the harm of this harassment and responding apathetically with a “just shake it off” mentality, we send a dangerous message to women and girls that if you’re walking down a street or in any public space – you just may get stared at, hooted and hollered at, and even touched without any recourse. We also send a clear message to perpetrators that they can do any number of these things to make women feel threatened, unsafe and violated without any repercussion.
So, it is time to ask ourselves – how many times do we have to experience/witness/hear about stranger-street harassment to do something about it? When do we commit to educate our society about respect and equality in public places, so that women and girls can feel safe walking down the street?
For the stop violence against women movement, it is time to ask ourselves – why has it taken us so long to acknowledge the critical role of stranger-street harassment in ending gender discrimination and what can we do to combat it?
Fighting stranger-street harassment as a prevalent form of gender-based discrimination and violence is absolutely essential to the stop violence against women movement. With the momentum from the newly initiated International Anti-Street Harassment Week, now is the time to incorporate this issue into our programs to end gender-based violence and discrimination and make a commitment to stop public harassment and make public spaces safe for women and girls.
For more information about the movement to end stranger-street harassment, go to:
Stop Street Harassment: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/
Meet us On the Street: http://www.meetusonthestreet.org/