UNWomen’s project to take on street harassment gets underway

BY EMILY MAY

As I write this, I am sitting on a plane heading back from my trip to Cairo, Egypt, where I was at the UN’s Safe Cities conference.  The Safe Cities initiative is working to establish a model to address street harassment and gender-based violence in public space in 5 cities throughout the world using a mix of research, evaluation, media advocacy, policy change, and community engagement.   Their concept is that they don’t just want to respond to street harassment, they want to prevent it all together.

 

I’m not going to lie here – being at a conference exclusively designed to address gender-based violence in public space was pretty dreamy.  When we started Hollaback! we’d never heard the term street harassment, and in our search to call it something more legitimate than catcalling, we thought we’d invented the term. We didn’t (the term has been around since 1981, and activists have been working on the issue since the 1920s), but mainstream conversation on street harassment was virtually nonexistent.

 

Being in a room with over 100 UNWomen staff talking about street harassment, as a legitimate –and solvable – problem made me feel like I was home. It could have only been made better by having our site leaders in the room, but since it was just me this time, I want to share with you some of the initial findings of the scoping studies that local UNWomen sites did to target the problem in their cities:

  • Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby has been named the third worst city in the world to live in, based on indicators on stability, education infrastructure health and environment.  Their study was based in the markets, which filled with open sewage, but they are also one of the only places in the community where social interaction takes place.  The team did a mapping study – and surveying over 400 men and women at the markets.  They found that sexual violence, including rape, reported from the bushy areas of the market – and that women regularly avoided using the bathroom, which is located near the busy area for fear of violence. They also found evidence of transactional sex, extortion, and fear and anxiety among all users – including men. They found a notable lack of social cohesion, social responsibility, and ownership over the markets – and community members didn’t see themselves as key players in making the markets cleaner or safer.
  • Kigali, Rwanda. The scoping study found that 13% of the women surveyed where followed by foot, by car, or motorcycle, 8% of respondents witnessed flashing or public masturbation, 17% groped or cornered to be publicly kissed, and 10% have been forced to undergo or make indecent touching and half of those individuals have experienced it twice or more.
  • Quito, Ecuador. Their study indicated that half of half of the men interviewed touched women’s bodies, and interestingly that younger men tend to harass collectively, whereas older men do it individually. Similar to most places around the world – the harassment starts between ages 10-13, and most young girls blame themselves.  By the age of adulthood 33% of women have been harassed multiple times, and 90% of women fear public space.  Quito had a successful public ad campaign to reduce harassment, but the anti-harassment policies that exist continue to not be enforced.
  • New Delhi, India. In Delhi they surveying five communities where they found that 2/3 of the women surveyed faced harassment more than 5 times in the past year, and that the fear of being harassed came across as strongly as the experience of harassment. Significant progress has been made, including women-only subway cars, but backlash from men claiming that “women have too many privileges” exists in tandem with progress.
  • Cairo, Egypt. Their study showed that 83% of women in Egypt have experienced harassment, 98% of foreign visitors have experienced it (I can attest to that), and 62% of men in Egypt admit to harassing women (ECWR, 2008).  The study also found that girls schools, public transportation, coffee shops and kiosks where some of the areas where the harassment was focused.

 

This research is preliminary, as they are still in year one of their five year plan, but I have high hopes for this initiative. Street harassment is poised to be the next big women’s issue of the coming decade, and these projects will be international models for what is possible.

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