In light of the massive unveiling of what may have been Hollywood’s biggest secret, sexual harassment is a topic currently trending in all spheres of social media. Harassment is a reality that most women (and men) have encountered at some stage in their lives. It exists in all manner of forms – in the workplace, at school or even in the streets.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, street sexual harassment was familiar and common within my community. I would often read stories of women wearing what was deemed ‘inappropriate’, and subsequently having their clothes ripped off by complete strangers – gangs of men who were self-appointed morality officers. It was quite horrifying to read about such incidences.
My first personal encounter with street harassment may have been at the tender age of eleven or twelve. As a pubescent pre-teen feeling the awkwardness of my changing body, I would find myself fearful of walking in public wearing anything that accentuated my budding breasts or widening hips and buttocks. I lived in baggy T-shirts and pants. I would make sure to avoid walking past a group of men, or any male for that matter, as doing so often seemed to be understood as an invitation for unsolicited conversation. I would hear jeers and remarks such as “sister”, “sweetie”, “ baby”.
I feel strongly that no one should have to experience sexual harassment, and especially not on a regular basis. Yet that is the reality for many young African women and girls, especially if they rely on public transport or work in male dominated spaces.
Many young women, myself included, are constantly seeking measures that can be undertaken for prevention and protection. One young Dutch woman used social media to capture images of her street harassers and call them out publicly on a worldwide platform. Though this seems very bold for me in my context, I commended her efforts because it brought a spotlight on what is a global issue for women all over the world.
Wherever you live, there are steps that can be undertaken to address street harassment (while making sure your personal safety is always your first priority!). For example:
- Respond to the harassers in a calm, assertive manner – “Stop it. No one likes it. Show some respect.”
- Name the behaviour, especially if it’s physical, and make a command – “Your hand is on my leg. Remove it now.“
- Be an active bystander and intervene if witnessing harassment
- Share your experience with others
It’s also important to have men as allies when it comes to street sexual harassment. We need men to realise the damaging and traumatic affect it has on women. We need men to realise that they have no entitlement to female bodies or spaces, and – importantly – we need men to speak out against harassment when witnessed and not to turn a blind eye.
My hope is that very soon, all people everywhere can walk confidently in public streets and spaces without fear of physical, emotional or verbal sexual harassment being inflicted upon them.