Three months ago, I was sexually harassed on the street near my university campus. For several blocks, a man followed me as he tried to start a conversation at a very uncomfortable distance with invasive questions. After he unabashedly commented on my looks, I turned around to ask him whether he knew that what he was doing was street harassment. He told me I was overreacting as he was “only complimenting” me.
After that, things got worse. He continued following me, but he wasn’t calling me pretty anymore. Instead, he was thoroughly describing what he would do to me if we were alone. Some people stared at us. I’m sure some of them heard his words or saw my tears. But they did nothing.
When I told my story very few were surprised. In fact, many put the blame on me for walking on my own. When I asked about the possibility of checking CCTV footage from nearby stores, they called me dramatic. According to them, it wasn’t that big a deal. But it was.
Our authorities have made previous unsuccessful attempts to take a stand against the growing rate of gender-based violence in Mexico. However, in February this year the House of Representatives unanimously categorized street harassment as a felony in accordance with the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Without Violence. It’s currently waiting for the Senate’s approval to come into force.
In 2017, Mexico City – ranked sixth worst megacity for women in the world – hosted UN Women’s global forum on safe cities for women and girls. Mexico City’s government has also gradually invested more in the subway’s ‘pink cars‘ program and launched the app ‘ViveSegura’ so that women can report where they’ve been victims of sexual violence in order to map risk-areas.
And so although the authorities are taking some action, it is still not enough. It’s important to keep in mind that Mexico City has a privilege that no other Mexican city has: it’s the capital, and therefore, it’s the center of attention. It’s one of the few cities in the country, if not the only one, that has studies on both sexual harassment and street harassment.
I believe part of the problem is that sexual violence is normalized to the point that it seems like an intrinsic way of thinking among many Mexicans. The ease with which perpetrators can commit these crimes is the result of a culture of normalization that includes victim blaming and telling women to fear public space because we are not safe there.
So, what’s missing when it comes to street harassment?
“I think authorities are trying to stop street harassment. But a real change would require a major structural change, and no one is doing it,” said Ana Pandal, co-creator of Organización Genera, a Puebla-based association that seeks to raise awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. “We must focus on letting people know what street harassment is as well to ensure that both our society and authorities fully reject it.”
With this in mind, they launched the initiative #YoNoAcosoYoDenuncioYDefiendo (#IDontHarassIReportAndSupport). “We’re trying to support victims and to claim back public spaces. They’re not alone and their voices matter. We also want to encourage privileged groups to stop normalizing street harassment and to create a society of active bystanders who won’t remain silent,” added Sara Achik, co-creator of Organización Genera.
The way the campaign works is very simple. After creating a network in a city, the group can access files on Genera’s website where they will find stickers of the campaign’s logo and a girl walking confidently (designed by Mexican artist Valeria Chairez), as well as pamphlets that define and explain street harassment. The members of the group then put these stickers in places where women feel unsafe and post pictures on social media using the hashtags. The goal is to show that they’re not afraid and that public spaces are for everyone who wants to make use of them.
I walked by myself on the street where I was sexually harassed so that I could put up these stickers. I felt no fear. I stopped hearing the words of my harasser. All I could hear was a sentence in my head that repeated itself like a mantra: “the streets are ours”.