How many times does a woman get harassed on the street waking home, or in her school or in a bus or train? How many times does she get cat called just by passing a construction site, even if it is in the center of the city? How many times she feels uncomfortable, how many times she has to change her route, how many times she is genuinely scared and how many times does she have to get used to living with the degrading words addressed to her.
The answer is simple: too many.
There is a need to bring to light the issue of street harassment and all forms of sexual violence against women in public spaces – using public transport, lining up in bus terminals, going around markets/malls, and even just walking home in their own neighborhoods. Whether due to shame or fear, women traditionally just ignore and keep silent about the various forms of sexual harassment that they experience such as catcalls, sexual innuendos, stalking or repeated harassment for their numbers, male public exposure, and lascivious and indecent hollering after them.
The UN Women Safe Cities Programme started as a response to a little known issue: street harassment and sexual violence in public spaces. In many countries around the world catcalling has been normalized and has become culturally acceptable. Most women have been socialized to think that these catcalls are merely a trivial annoyance and that they just need to ‘toughen up’ and ignore it. On the other hand, some men and boys believe that they are in the right when they holler after women because the women are ‘asking for it’, especially if the subject is dressed in something considered ‘daring’ or ‘provocative’.
Nonetheless, studies show that, while younger women are most often the target, women from all walks of life and socio-economic status, regardless of what they are wearing, get harassed in public spaces. However, the gravity of the acts as well as the impact on the victims are greater when it involves younger girls from low-income areas. Studies have shown that the indecent language that girls from urban slums have to endure are more severe, both in terms of the lascivious nature and frequency. This can be because slum areas have a lot of public spaces that intersect with areas for drinking in the streets or drifters hanging out.
Just as the forms of sexual harassment lie in a continuum, so do the varying levels of impact of these acts on women. The effects on women can vary from the less severe to the more severe – from needing extra time on the street or more money on transport changing routes in order to avoid harassment, to feeling emotional strain of being objectified and hurt, to holding the constant sense of fear while walking in public spaces, particularly at nightfall.
Violence in public spaces is a global issue. This is the reason why Safe Cities is one of only two UN Women flagship programs on the issue of violence against women (VAW). A unique feature of the program is that it is being implemented in cities in both developed and developing countries. Safe Cities Programmes in New Delhi, Rwanda, Quito, Port Moresby are joined by programmes in New York, Sakai, Manitoba and Dublin. Over 24 cities have joined the initiative and although they have varying focus areas of interventions – some focus on public transport, others in public markets, and still others in slums – they all focus on increasing women’s sense of safety and freedom to move in public spaces, while reducing the incidence of street harassment and sexual violence in the cities.
However, in some developing countries, the challenge is greater as there are no laws covering street harassment, or, if there are, law enforcement personnel are not properly trained to respond. Moreover, women seldom trust them enough to respond.
One of the most important factors in fighting street harassment is the bystanders’ behaviour. People witnessing the incident have a tough choice: should they intervene, or not? Sometimes they don’t know if it is serious enough, other times they do not know what to do, or understandably they are themselves scared.
In support of the 16-days of Activism to Eliminate Violence Against Women, UN Women in the Philippines launched the Safe Cities: Women #FreeFromFearCampaign – 18 days of speaking out against Street Harassment. Every day, from November 25 until December 12, the Safe Cities Metro Manila Programme will stand one with the nation in the call to end VAW now. As part of the campaign, the Safe Cities Metro Manila Program (SCMM) has come up with the 4Rs as a guideline to help bystanders as well as the victims of violence in public spaces to fight back.
While many programs focus on responding to violence in public spaces, an important aspect of SCMM Program strategy is prevention through awareness-raising. Both women and men need to know what their rights are,what sexual harassment and violence include, and what they can do to stop it. Thus, everybody needs to realize that sexual harassment in public spaces is not just a trivial issue, and that all women have the right to move about in the city streets free from fear and free from violence.
If one feels safe enough, catcallers and street harassers need to be told off. Women who experience harassment, for example in a very public place such as inside a bus, should be very clear in expressing that the harassment is unwanted and unwelcome through physically moving away, staring down the harasser, or vocally disapproving. Women can also ask for help of bystanders. Similarly, those who witness a woman being sexually harassed should respond and be active bystanders. There are many strategies such as distracting the harassers, physically going in between the woman and harasser, teaming up with other bystanders to come to the aid of the victim and letting the harasser know you are all opposing his action together.
Especially in cities with laws and policies against sexual harassment in public spaces, women should report the incidents. This can be done with local transport officials, the police, or village security focal points. The harassers may or may not get caught; however, what is important is that both victims and witnesses do not contribute to the culture of silence around this issue. Tell friends, family, and your support group. There are even numerous examples in New Delhi or Cairo where women post their experience on social media to warn other women or just to offer support to each other.
We need to create a culture of intolerance when it comes to sexual harassment and sexual violence against women in our city streets, transport and all public spaces. It cannot be done overnight, but there needs to be a growing movement from all sectors in society that oppose this sexual objectification of women. Social norms are created and can be re-created through increasing knowledge about simple cause and effect of people’s normalized behavior towards women. Safe Cities Metro Manila, for example, works closely with men’s networks of advocates against VAW as well as with city governments and grassroots organizations in developing locally owned and evidence-based programmes that are relevant to the local context.
While governments, International Organisations and NGOs have to work together to put in place proper programs to address the issue of violence against women in public spaces, every community member needs to realize that they too have a role to play. It can be a passive one, for example documenting instances of harassment once witnesses, or it can be an active one, choosing to intervene when someone is being harassed.
Either way, everyone should be a volunteer in the fight to stop violence against women.
It is not enough to say we want cities that are free from violence; but it is such an important indicator of safety that women are free from fear as they move about in the streets, participating in work/school/public life, and claiming their right to the city.