In Romania, a woman suffers physical violence every 30 seconds and every 4 hours a woman is raped! Regarding street harassment, there is no statistical data, although this is a daily and pervasive experience for women and girls in the cities of Romania. Moreover, according to a 2015 Study of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 600.000 women have been, at some time in their life, victims of a sexual aggression, but these data refer just to the declared cases and they focus on rape and other forms of sexual violence, not on sexual street harassment in particular.
Street harassment is a form of sex discrimination, it includes unwanted verbal and non-verbal behaviours, most of them resulting in a sexual manner like catcalls, sexual touches, threats with rape, leers, kisses noises, wolf-whistles, stalking, flashing, public masturbation.
In Romania the situation of street harassement against women is missing from public discourse and public agenda and is considered to be a normal reality for young women. In 2014 I’ve conducted semi-structured interviews with 10 young women from Bucharest, the Capital city of Romania, for my dissertation “Street harassment in Bucharest. Case Studies” (2014), the first pilot qualitative research on street harassment in Bucharest, Romania. My research had shown street harassment is a daily and pervasive experience for many young women in Bucharest and has major impact on their life and for gender equality as well.
What is Street Harassment against Women?
Every woman must have the liberty and the right to go wherever she wants in the public space, which is supposed to be opened to all individuals, because public sphere plays a crucial role in their social life. “This liberty is essential and important to equal participation between women and men in the public sphere” (Bowman, 1993).
Thus, the security to move freely in the public sphere is a basic civil right. This form of sexual violence restricts the freedom of physical mobility of women, restricting their opportunities to participate in the public sphere in a manner equal to men. Women who live in urban areas and walk or use public transportation are experiencing street harassment on a daily basis. Important for the freedom of women to feel safe and secure in public spaces is their right to choose in what interactions they want to get involved with men, by mutual consent, which is often absent.
Street harassment occurs in patriarchal societies and is sustained by male dominance and gender stereotypes. “Sexual harassment is a product of culturally legitimated power and status differences between men and women” (Farley 1978 & MacKinnon 1979 cited in Welsh, 1999). Through this patriarchal tool, women are kept in a constant state of fear and learn the fact that men can assert, in a legitimated way, their power and dominance over them.
Street Harassment in Bucharest. The Main Findings of the First Qualitative Research in Bucharest
For the variable “definition of street harassment, the most significant responses were:
Any act of intimidation, humiliation, sexual assault taking place on the street. (D.M.R., 30 years old).
“Sexual harassment happens when strange men are addressing words, sexual attitudes to me”. (D.A.G., Craiova, 36 years).
So, street harassment is felt by the women interviewed as a situation of discomfort and uncertainty, includes vulgar and unwanted attention and they know it can quickly escalate into a more serious form of violence.
The variable “forms of street harassment”, one of the responses was :
“I happen to be frequently honked, sometimes being asked my phone number, some men invite me in their cars, shouting to me that they want fuck me, or simply they swear at me. I was groped, punched, touched on my breasts. Once I was chased by a guy who kept yelling “cunt, cuuuunt!” and seeing he was heading towards me I ran. (P.M., 24 years old).
Another variable was “feeling of safety”. Some of the responses reflect that interviewed women feel safe in known areas and in day time but none of them goes out alone at night.
“I’ve worked in a bar and I worked until 2 AM. I went to take a taxi. I sat on the sidewalk and smoked a cigarette. A gentleman approached me. He behaved as if I were a prostitute and he asked me if I wanted to have fun with him and how much do I charge him. I said “Sir, just because I am outside, it does not mean I am a prostitute!”. Then I got scared enough because he insisted a lot.” (L.R., 25 years old)
“Two friends of mine were returning from the supermarket. Two strange men shouted sexual remarks after them, and because they refused to respond to their comments and questions, the men chased them and one of the girls stumbled and broke her leg, being rushed to the hospital”. (S.L,23 years old)
Regarding the variable “strategies to increase the sense of security in the public space, most of women choose to restrain their lifestyle and their liberty to use public spaces.
“To feel safe on the street I dress very decent. I prefer pants and neck blouses to not attract attention. I am not smiling and I do not stop if someone request my attention unless it is a woman, a child or an old man. I have pepper spray. I cannot do too much…” (N.M.S., 33 years old)
Street harassment affects women’s well-being and their relation to public sphere and with stranger men. Despite their effort to cope with street harassment and to mask the feeling of anger, stress, fear, humiliation, invasion and disgust, they feel disempowered and they blame themselves.
In order to challenge and change attitudes on masculinity and femininity and the norms and myths about violence against girls and women, we should accept the impact of these all in our life, in our education and in our way of thinking.
In October 2014, me and my colleagues for FILIA Centre (the feminist NGO where I work in) organized a march against street harassment in Bucharest, a great opportunity for all the 150 people participating to stand up against street harassment. In April 2015, during International Week against Street Harassment, we, along with other NGO’s for women’s rights and many activists, made a flashmob, shared fliers and wrote messages with chalk in a park in Bucharest.
Hollaback! Romania is an online platform (Facebook – Hollaback! Romania) started by me and a friend who fights for human rights, as part of the worldwide Hollaback!. Both of us participated in a radio show and discussed about street harassment and the launching of Hollaback! Romania site. The online platform Hollaback! Romania was launched in the summer 2015, at a festival “Femei pe Mătăsari” (Women on Mătăsari Street) in Bucharest, having the chance to meet men and women who are interested in speaking up against street harassment, and it aims to encourage girls, women and sexual minorities to share their experiences of street harassment.
Between October and December 15 a Mentoring Program funded by Stop Street Harassment, named “Highschool students for a street harassment-free city!” (“Liceene si liceeni pentru un oras fara hartuire stradala!”) is being run by my colleague from FILIA Centre Ștefania and I. It includes two groups of high school students (30 students each group) from a high school in Bucharest and they are involved in non-formal workshops on themes like gender roles, discrimination, gender equality, violence against women and street harassment against women. At the end of these workshops an artistic contest will be organized, asking the students to address street harassment victim-blaming, bystander intervention etc., with some awards for them.
Raising awareness and education of boys in particular it’s crucial in addressing and stopping this major issue in young women’s life.
Women’s experiences matter, must be heard and taken into consideration!
I am a feminist and I am against gender-based violence because I’ve suffered it. I know many women who are survivors and I knew some who died because of it. For me, it is important to speak up and to fight against this form of violence because I know how it feels to be a victim and a survivor of gender-based violence. I know women are not the ones to blame but the aggressors and I strongly believe the world must be right and equal for us all. Violence is not the solution and must be called out every time we see it!