More Than 16 Days: Violence Against Women on the Sidewalk
Day 14 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence: This article written by Holly Kearl is the lead activist of Stop Street Harassment, which runs the program International Anti-Street Harassment Week each April.
“You’ve got great legs, baby!” a 43-year-old man told Brittney, a 15-year-old girl, as she waited for the subway on her way to school in New York City, New York.
Disgusted, she said, “Excuse me, you probably have a daughter older than me.”
In response he said, “Sorry you just look so sexy in that schoolgirl outfit I couldn’t help it and you do have great legs.”
Her final victorious retort was, “Sexual harassment is a crime, leave me alone or I will report you,” and the man hurried away.
Unfortunately, Brittney’s experience is not unusual.
One of our most basic rights should be the right to walk down the street, take public transportation, and visit stores safely, without facing harassment, yet that is a right that many women are routinely denied.
Limited research shows that at least 80 percent of women have experienced gender-based street harassment, including unwanted leering, “catcalls,” sexually explicit comments, demands for a smile, groping, stalking, and public masturbation.
Two years ago, I wrote a book about this topic and I run a website where people share their stories. Recently, a 19-year-old shared her story and this is how she opened it:
“On most days I find that I get stopped on the street by men. On a few occasions they have been aggressive, threatening and have followed me home…I have become accustomed to being particularly cautious and paranoid when I walk anywhere alone. I thought it was normal for woman to feel unsafe when out alone.”
This is heartbreaking. But sadly, the reality is, feeling unsafe and cautious because of street harassment—or the threat of it—is a way of life for so many women.
Instead of street harassment being treated as the human rights violation that it is, typically, it’s normalized; it’s treated as a joke, a compliment, or the fault of the harassed person.
I was reminded of this in June when I led a successful Change.org petition to take down a “pro-street harassment” sign at a construction site in a New Jersey Mall. The fact that the sign existed at all was problematic and then, when the petition’s success was covered by major media outlets and discussed on radio shows and local blogs across the country, I was shocked by just how rampantly people engaged in victim-blaming or dismissed the issue altogether.
If you’re like me, you want to live in a world where women can go to school, work, community meetings, corner stores, and local parks safely. There is no better time than now, during the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Violence, to get started. Here are five ideas for action:
1. Share your own stories (online and aloud), especially with men. Bring this issue out into the open. Make it so this human rights violation cannot be ignored anymore.
2. Learn and share assertive responses to use when you’re street harassed
3. Use art to raise awareness. Bring attention to this issue in your community.
4. Conduct a survey or a safety audit to track the harassment in your community and then contact city officials, business owners, and public transit authority leaders to discuss the findings and solutions.
5. Collectively take action during Meet Us On the Street: International Anti-Street Harassment Week, April 7-13, 2013.
The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is a global campaign dedicated to ending gender-based violence. In participation with The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, The Women Worldwide Initiative is hosting a Blog Series entitled, More Than 16 Days, from the start of the Campaign on the International Day for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence on November 25th, to Human Rights Day on December 10th with contributions from one of our Board Members, founder of Everyday Ambassador, Stop Street Harassment, Take Back the Tech!, Young Professionals Amnesty International (NYC), writers for the International Political Forum and young women from Women LEAD, based in post-conflict Nepal.