“You wake up in the morning, you’re ready for your day. Excited, you look forward to learn, read new books, hangout with your friends . ”It’s going to be a good today,” you reassure yourself.
As you wait for your bus, you realize a man is staring at you. You feel uncomfortable, but let it go. This is every day, anyway. Then three boys slyly pass lewd comments about your body as you pass them. Again, you feel infuriated but resort to silence. You’re hoping your bus comes soon.You get into the crowded bus. Amongst the familiar commotion, there’s an unfamiliar and intruding touch. There’s a man who is trying to slide his hand down your body.
Now you are furious. You ask him to stop it. He responds casually, says he’s just standing. Others stare at you, refusing to intervene, accusatory eyes. Someone snorts, “If you have such a problem, why don’t you stay at home?” Helpless with agitation, you listen and silence yourself.
Just an a hour ago you were excited and happy. Now you feel angry, disgusted and helpless….”
If you identify as female, you’ve been through this. If you are a male, you also know exactly what I’m talking about. Yes, this is about street sexual harassment. Street sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence and it is a violation of human rights. It is not fun, it is not a game, it is not normal.
Every woman has experienced sexual harassment in her life at some point. But most of us maintain a helpless silence. Because voicing our fear often means losing our jobs, putting our family under tremendous strain or getting blamed for venturing out. If we complain, our mobility is restricted as we’re made to give up education, married early or asked to dress more ‘modestly’. Over the years, we have normalized this violation of our rights to such an extent that we’ve made ourselves believe that it does not affect us. But trust me, IT DOES! I’ve been affected.
As a working woman, I am still not comfortable to travel in any public or private transport even today. Every day, I travel shouldering the fear of of men staring at me, passing comments or touching me. And when they do, I feel humiliated, unwelcome, unsafe and disrespected in public spaces that belong equally to me by right. I’ve carried this feeling with me for more than 22 years. This must stop.
If half of our population exists with fear in public spaces, is street sexual harassment then only a women’s issue? Shouldn’t all of us take responsibility to make sure this violence stop? I know it will end only when boys and men change their attitudes and behaviour towards women and girls. I firmly believe that we cannot paint all men with the same brush. In most of the cases and from my experience, men want to help, but they are unaware of the ways to help. They don’t have an environment around them that demands ‘gender equitable behaviour’ from them.
So, to all the men who are reading this, here are some ways in which you can stop or prevent sexual violence when learn about it or you witness it:
1. Recognise that staring, passing comments, catcalling, commenting, touching body parts, whistling, any act that makes a person feel anxious, angry or unsafe – counts as harassment. So, do not participate in any such activity. Don’t ignore it. Condone it if you witness
2. Learn to empathise when your female friend or family member talks about her experiences of sexual harassment and violence. Don’t patronize them or blame them. Be an empathetic listener and ask women about how the risk of being sexually harassed affects their daily lives; about how they want to be supported if it has happened to them; about what they think men can do to prevent sexual violence. If you’re willing to listen, you can learn a lot from women about the impact of street sexual harassment in any form and how to stop it.
3. Understand what consent is and talk about it with others. Help men around you understand consent as well.
4. Use respectful language and do not use words that degrade a woman and disregard their rights. Watch the gender based abusive words that you may be using casually.
5. Put your foot down: When your friend makes a sexist comment or tells a joke, say you don’t find it funny. In turn, and question them why they find it funny? This way you will help them question and think of what they do and say.
6. Do not blame the victim: The only person responsible for sexual violence is the perpetrator. A woman’s clothes, her company, the time, whether she had consumed alcohol or not, are factors that are NOT RELEVANT. When you hear “she was wearing a short skirt! She is the one responsible!”; “Boys will be boys” etc. use your voice and break down these moral policing myths.
7. Never take up the protective approach. Lets understand that men are not here to protect women. There would be no need of protection if the world is equitable. Support women who want to take a stand. Do not put restrictions on women to make them safe even if you think “it is for their own good”.
8. Take an upstander approach. When you witness any female getting harassed on streets, don’t be a passive bystander. Act. Make noise. If you are afraid, then use methods to distract the perpetrator, but stop the harassment. Remember, being a passive bystander means you are a part of the problem.
9. Organize- Form your own groups of men focused on educating them to stop street sexual harassment or any gender-based violence.
On this Women’s Day let’s both men and women come together to break the barriers of patriarchy, to challenge and change gender norms and advocate for human rights.
Together we can prevent violence against women and girls- Let’s all become a part of the solution!
About the author:
Anjana is the Programme and Team Development Manager at Equal Community Foundation.