Street Harassment and Beyond

A worldwide phenomenon of violence that mostly affects individuals considered weaker.


In late April of this year (2016) thousands of Mexican women in more than 30 cities across the country took to the streets demanding a stop to violence against women and in particular to street harassment. Under the #Vivas NosQueremos (literally we want ourselves alive) motto, according to official numbers around five thousand women in Mexico City , marched from the sadly famous Ecatepec (where over 400 women, mostly young girls between the ages of 14 and 17, have disappeared from 2010 to 2015 alone) to the center of Mexico City.

According to Civil Society organizations, in that same period, over 1500 women have disappeared. The numbers include the report made by the parents of the missing women to the Observatory of Feminicides in the State of Mexico where Ecatepec is situated.

In 2015, 40 dismembered bodies of these missing women were found. Where we witness feminicide, street harassment is the most vivid reflection of the absolute disrespect of both women and the LGBT community, not only in Mexico but worldwide.

Gender-based street harassment is defined as “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation” as stated by According to this US based organization, street harassment includes unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexual names, comments and demands, following, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape. These infringements of basic human rights can take place in the street or public spaces. It excludes workplace harassment and domestic violence.

An Egyptian youth, trailed by his friends, gropes a woman as she crosses a Cairo street.

An Egyptian youth, trailed by his friends, gropes a woman as she crosses a Cairo street.

According to UN Women (UNW, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women), sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public spaces are an everyday occurrence for women and girls worldwide. Women and girls experience and fear various types of sexual violence in public spaces, from unwanted sexual remarks and touching to rape and feminicide. It happens on streets, in and around public transportation, schools and workplaces, in public sanitation facilities, water and food distribution sites and parks. The entity claims that this reality reduces women’s and girls’ freedom of movement. It reduces their ability to participate in school, work and public life. It limits their access to essential services and their enjoyment of cultural and recreational opportunities. It also negatively impacts their health and well-being. Finally, UNW points out that although domestic violence is now widely recognized as a human rights violation, violence against women and girls, especially sexual harassment, in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to prevent and address it. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, however, is clear in stating that both public and private spaces are equally important to make safe for women.

One of the latest countries to have specific legislation in Latin America is Peru. In March 2015 the Congress of the Republic approved a law that would also imply changes in the Criminal Code and specific sanctions to persons accused and sentenced as well as specific mandates for the Women’s, Transport and Communication, Education and Health Ministries of the country to carry out preventive measures such as campaigns, signalling, and educational initiatives. In Quito, Ecuador, the municipality amended a local ordinance to strengthen action against sexual harassment in public spaces. UN Women supported this initiative as well as other interesting ones in Cairo, Egypt and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Through the engagement of youth, public authorities and other local stakeholders, this UN entity is rolling out its flagship programme on Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces. In addition to a strategy of local engagement, UN Women also aims to address laws and policies, investment for improving safety and changes in attitudes and behaviours.


Stop Street Harassment published a study in 2014 where a number of interesting statistics were listed based on a US nation-wide survey: 65% percent of women reported experiencing at least one type of street harassment in their lifetimes. More than half (57%) of all women had experienced verbal harassment, and 41% experienced physically aggressive forms, including sexual touching (23%), following (20%), flashing (14%), and being forced to do something sexual (9%). For men, 25% experienced street harassment too, including 18% who experienced verbal harassment and 16% who experienced physically aggressive forms. Men who identified as LGBT experienced harassment more than who identified as heterosexual. In many ways, persons of colour, lower-income people, and persons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender were disproportionately affected by street harassment overall. Other results from this study include a whopping 86% of women and 79% of men who reported of having been harassed more than once. Women were more likely than men to say it happened sometimes, often, or daily. Two-thirds of the harassed women (68%) and half of the harassed men (49%) said they were very or somewhat concerned that the incident would escalate into something worse. Nearly twice as many women (25%) as men (13%) said they were very concerned. More recently, in Europe and in the context of xenophobia increasing as a result of the massive influx of refugees in countries like Germany, a huge debate was started after the new year’s celebrations in Cologne where a group of 1000 men assaulted, raped and robbed an undetermined number of women. , As only 379 criminal complaints were filed, 40% involved sexual abuse. Police was blamed for lack of coordination and for dismissing the accusations by women at the train station esplanade immediately after they were happening. After 58 arrests made with the help of victim’s testimonies and video footage, it turned out that only three were refugees, while most others were of Arab and North African descent and three Germans. Several voices of prominent feminists in the country called for measures against harassment that happen in other German festivities such as the Oktoberfest and for standing strongly against racism and the lack of support by authorities to women’s complaints.

Also in the EU context, the organization recently published a report on street harassment in Poland. That report underlines the fact that in most cases (60%!) women do not react and only 2% report to the police. However, even more shocking is the fact that in 65% of cases the harassment happened in front of others who also did nothing. The report states that “protesting appears not only as a necessary condition in order to be able to claim legal protection but also to be able to count on the help of bystanders. Unfortunately women often have to count on themselves, while others passively observe and acknowledge their humiliation”.

US mother jones

Standing up and giving a voice to the experiences of those who have been harassed in public spaces is a basic first step for legislation, policies and measures to address this scourge. The National Public Radio (NPR) website in the US is most telling in experiences across the globe. Proof of this is that the national march in Mexico quickly started yielding results. By mid May 2016, 34 men were formally charged and arrested for sexual harassment in the public underground system according to news reports. Ultimately a change in culture and behavior is needed so that street harassment becomes a thing of the past.

GenderHuman Rights
Elizabeth Villagómez

Elizabeth Villagomez, independent researcher and consultant, has been the Adviser for Economic Empowerment of Women UN Regional Office for the Americas and the Caribbean and was the first economic adviser at the institution in 2001 as part of UNIFEM. She holds a PhD in Economics. Her professional activity has developed in teaching and applied research in economics with a focus on gender issues. She has worked in Eastern and South East Europe, Middle East, Central Asia, South-east Asia, and the Pacific Islands for various UN agencies and other European and international organizations.
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