February 6, 2017
Women and girls have a fundamental right to safety. This safety is a precursor to development and growth, in order for girls and women to be able to build more prosperous lives for themselves, their families, their communities and their country. This week's Girls' Leadership Forum post features women from Washington, DC and girls from Ethiopia, Eritrea, India, and Haiti on the safety in the streets and in public spaces.
Street Harassment is Gender-Based Violence
Despite strides we’ve made towards equality for women in the workplace and at home, women and girls still experience discrimination and threats to their personal safety in public spaces. This could be a wolf whistle, or a “hey, sexy,” yelled out on the street. It could be an unwanted hand on a woman’s thigh or hips during her subway commute to work. It could be someone following a young girl on her way home from school. All of these abuses are forms of sexual harassment, or “street harassment.” Activist and scholar Holly Kearl defines Gender-based street harassment in the following way:
“Gender-based street harassment is 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.”
One misconception about street harassment is that it doesn’t happen in the United States or in other developed countries. People are familiar with the horror stories of gang rapes on public transit in India, for example. Yet the verbal abuse, which generates fear of physical abuse for women and girls and that is experienced by more than two-thirds of women in the US, 99% of women in Croatia, 83% of women in Israel, 79% of women in Korea, 59% of women in the Netherlands and 85% of women in Poland (just to name a few), goes largely ignored and dismissed as unimportant, or as less important than other forms of gender-based violence.
What many people, especially the perpetrators of street harassment, fail to see is that street harassment is not a compliment, making women and girls feel respected and beautiful, and it is not just “casual sexism.” Street Harassment is gender-based violence. It’s on the same spectrum as domestic violence and sexual abuse. What starts as a catcall on the street can and does quickly progress into sexual assault and violence. Certainly, women and girls see this connection; they share their thoughts, frustrations and fears about street harassment with you here, in their own words.
Reflections from Girls in Haiti
Three girls who live in the town of Borgne explored the meaning of “safety” with the leader of the Girls’ Group. To Sabrina, “feeling safe means to live in a home where I feel protected and looked after.” Her friend, Kenny-Love, said “I would like to live somewhere we can take care of ourselves without worrying. I would like to be able to have fun and play without fear”. Stefy added, “I would like to be around people who can mentor me and support me and do not commit acts of violence against girls and women.”
The girls collectively shared that they felt safer at home because their parents look after and protect them. One added, “While our parents can provide us a sense of security, only God can really protect us from the thugs who roam the streets.” Her friends agreed, and Stefy added that, “the authorities should also protect us.” Kenny-Love believes that, “While streets are scary places, girls feel most vulnerable in a movie theatre or a soccer field, spaces where we should be able to have fun!” Sabrina concluded, “I don’t feel safe in the streets or in open spaces, and I fear verbal and physical aggression.”
Haroni Amare, Ethiopia
Haroni Amare is an Ethiopian-American residing in Maryland, USA. She is currently a senior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, and hopes to continue her education to become a computer engineer!
As a woman in an urban environment, safety, for me, is deeply rooted in the people who surround me. In a city where walking or taking the metro alone during dark hours is deemed unsafe, I find myself questioning the social construct that presents men as predators and women as prey. In a space where I may be ‘hunted,’ I ease my fears by placing myself in crowds of friends and family.
The warmth I find in numbers speaks to the vulnerability of solitude that burdens females. In crowds with bright lights is where I feel safest. It is where I feel complete exposure and togetherness at the same time. This forms an intriguing dichotomy, as stripping individuality seems to be what makes me feel the same – where I don’t stand out or appear lonely. However, it angers me that my safety isn’t in my own hands, but rather in the hands of my friends and family. Their presence is what determines such status.
This feeling of losing control quickly washes over me when I experience that moment of panic, whether it stems from the side-glance of the stranger standing next to me, from the light flickering in the subway station or even from that second when I can’t spot my friend anymore. That feeling is one where I find myself stripped of the safety and comfort that I seek in my loved ones.
Kavya is in 12th standard (grade) at Nirmala Girls Higher Secondary School in Madurai, India. She is a member of the Saraswathi Adolescent Girls’ Group.
At home, girls are 75% safe, as parents provide care for the girls. When a girl goes to school, parents ensure the girls’ safety till the bus stop, and the school watchman cares for their safety at school. Whereas, from society at large, girls can expect 25% safety, but it is not ensured.
Women therefore don’t get safety from society. When she goes to common places like temples, parks or wherever she goes, there are safety issues. The main factor is men, although few behave indecently with women. There is no abuse over practice of religion; there is religious freedom for women in India. In this regard, I feel elated being born in India, since it is a safe place, and there is great regard for women here. Yet as regards their safety, there are gaps. When a girl wishes to move around, she needs support - she cannot go on her own. A woman can’t get home after work and return late at night because of insecurity. If women have to fight for their safety, how can you expect women to come out of their homes? Though we live in independent India, the freedom of choice for women is a mirage. These sorts of safety issues against women must be dealt with by the government. Gender equity has to be addressed. Now there are 30% seats for women in Parliament (with 33% of positions reserved to ensure representation of women in local government councils, called panchayat): this number should be 50%. Girls should be given training in self-defense, and tough laws should be put in place against the violators of women’s safety.
Reflections on Safety by Women in Southeast Washington, DC
Participants in WomenStrong’s DC program were asked to share where, when or how they felt most vulnerable in the society. As shown in the word cloud above, many of the women answered that they feel unsafe in their communities, on the streets, and using public transportation. These women live in Ward 8, which is considered one of the District’s poorest neighborhoods, and has a high crime rate. Many of the WomenStrong DC women have witnessed gun shootings, much of it prompted by gang and drug violence. Thus many women report feeling most vulnerable “in the street.”
Maya Robnett, Eritrea
Maya Robnett is a senior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC. She is half African American and half Eritrean. Maya hopes to pursue a career in biology.
To me, safety means that I feel comfortable in every part of me. I don’t have to think about what others might think of me. I don’t have to think about how what I do represents all women. But, most importantly, I don’t have to feel the stress of thinking that my actions implicate me into the objectification inflicted by others. I chose my safe place as the piano in my room because music is a form of expression free from society’s restrictions. The blues scale sounds the same whether it is a rough masculine hand playing it, or delicate small fingers. However, just as with every aspect of society, as soon as I view music outside of the confines of my room, it becomes easier to see the social implications. For example, I can’t go to jazz clubs by myself, for fear of what I might encounter late at night in the city. It is this innate fear that every woman feels that shows just how ingrained sexism is in our culture.
So many aspects of women’s lives revolve around the desire to preserve their personal safety, but this proves difficult in a society explicitly instilling fear and inferiority within women. It doesn’t matter if I’m wearing sweatpants or shorts, there is always a part of me that keeps an extra eye out for anybody who I feel is following me. It’s the feeling of walking an extra block just to avoid a man who gazes at you for a second too long. It’s the feeling of being too scared to make eye contact or to smile at that guy on the metro. It’s the feeling of spending an extra five minutes in the mirror to make sure what you’re wearing is “appropriate.” These are the everyday plights that a woman feels in society, and the worst part of it all is that it’s so common that fear feels normal. It’s something girls have to begin to learn from ages as young as 10 or 12. It’s easy to feel like this is just the way it is, and to write it off as just another symptom of the patriarchy. And, although these may be true at the moment, these are things that need to be changed in our society.
As of recently, it is very easy as a woman, and as a minority, to feel alone and disregarded in this country. We stand at a crossroad in America where we can decide how we choose to handle the fact that our nation has elected a racist, homophobic, and last but not least, sexist president. We can decide to accept his inauguration as just another symptom of the patriarchy, or we can decide to view it as an opportunity to make a change. I believe in the American democracy, and I’m grateful to even have the freedom to express my discontent with our nation’s leader, but it is also our duty as citizens to stand up peacefully for what we believe and to expand the endangered sphere of safety that women feel in this world.
More On These Essential Needs
Each year, WomenStrong International brings together the experienced, dedicated leaders of our Consortium member organizations in Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya and Washington, D.C., to share their innovative initiatives helping women and girls overcome extreme urban poverty.
Dr. Susan M. Blaustein