Breaking the Cycle of Street Harassment

For far too many women across the world, enduring street harassment is a fact of life. From getting catcalled to groped to followed home, there’s a good chance that even if it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to multiple women you know. Sometimes, this harassment is even deadly. A 2015 study done by Cornell University reported that in the United States, 85 percent of women experience street harassment before they turn 17, and 67 percent before the age of 14.

While it’s true that men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than women, another study done by Stop Street Harassment revealed that women are 40 percent more likely to be harassed while going about everyday activities. Particularly after dark, women and girls frequently feel unsafe when taking transit or walking alone, and as a result of a victim-blaming culture in Western countries many choose to remain home, travel in groups or alter their clothing choices in order to feel safer.

A significant portion of harassment occurs on public transportation, which is concerning as a Stanford University study showed that women rely more heavily on public transportation than men do. UN Women has highlighted the importance of making public transportation systems friendlier to women, stating that “safe public transportation systems are a precondition for women’s and girls’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of movement and their right to use and enjoy the city and its public spaces. If women cannot travel through the city safely every day, free from all forms of violence, then the city is not safe for women and girls. All people, whether living in cities or rural areas, need mobility as part of their daily life; this includes the ability to move between home, work, services, and leisure.“

This issue is only magnified in developing countries, with the five most dangerous major public transportation systems located in urban centers of Colombia, Mexico, Peru, India and Indonesia. In response, several large cities around the world have implemented women-only transit sections, with mixed results. In Rio de Janiero, these special carriages seemed to only cause more trouble due to a lack of respect from male commuters, who entered them despite the imposed restictions, but Tokyo seems to be having more success with their system.

Creating such a segregated system has sparked some debate as to its appropriateness, with some worried that it reinforces harmful gender roles or is not a plausible permanent solution. Indeed, maintaining extra security personnel to guard these cars increases costs, and in Jakarta the system lasted only seven months due to logistical issues: female-only cars were not used even close to their full capacity at rush hour, while mixed ones were full to bursting. Additionally, such a solution does not address the root of the problem— really, the only way to effectively end street harassment is through a proper cultural shift away from its acceptability. Although this is a far more abstract suggestion, and will not provide as obvious evidence of action, it is arguably the only way lasting change can be made towards this.

Ms. Magazine offers some suggestions to work towards a such a cultural shift, proposing that individuals “call out, interrupt or distract friends who are harassers. Many harassers (including women) only harass in groups and they may be trying to impress their friends or get a laugh. Friends telling them it’s not funny or cool can influence them to stop.” In addition, we can “report and protest cultural content that encourages street harassment and assault and portrays it as OK,” as well as “break the cycle of harassment and talk to kids, especially boys, about the issue.” This may be effective because when harassment initially begins, it may simply be a mimicking of what they’ve witnessed older males doing.

Until this cycle of harassment is truly broken, no matter what measures are taken women and girls will continue to face unwanted sexually-charged actions and comments in public areas, many of which are certain to go unreported. Making cities and public spaces safer will decrease instances of harassment and is definitely a strong step in the right direction, but ultimately these incidences will persist unless society takes a hard non-tolerance stance on harassment and abuse of all kinds.

The Huffington Post has given voice to some victims of harassment, as has Buzzfeed; women have also taken to social media to share their stories under the hashtag #nowomanever. Given this kind of platform, women are now speaking out more than they were able to in the past, fighting back against the idea that unwanted comments are jokes or compliments, and that men are entitled to the bodies of female strangers. Because that’s essentially what street harassment is- it stems from disrespect, entitlement and an age-old imbalance of power dynamics.

This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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