From gropes, to catcalls and less-than-subtle leers, if you’re a woman, you probably have a story (or ten) about being sexually harassed or assaulted in public. Street harassment is an all too common experience that women and girls all over the world are forced to endure on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is a problem that the public and law enforcement often turn a blind eye to.
To commemorate the International Day of the Girl, Plan International, an organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls, released their Unsafe In The City report on Thursday. Based on the testimonies of 21,000 females living in Delhi, Kampala, Lima, Madrid and Sydney, the report found found that in all five cities, boys and men routinely harass and assault young women and girls.
Holly Crockett, Manager of Community, Campaigns and Solidarity at Plan International, claimed the biggest finding in the report was that pervasive sexual harassment and assault was stopping women from freely participating in public spaces. “What we found was that it makes young women and girls change their behaviour, or it makes them go through life full of fear, and over time that can have impacts on people’s mental health, from the way they feel they’re able to participate in society,” she said. “In more extreme cases, we had anecdotal stories from India where girls were stopped from going to school because their parents thought that it was too unsafe for them to walk there and back. We had another example from Sydney where a girl actually moved out of the city because she had a few bad experiences.”
In one case, 21-year-old Lauren, who lives in Sydney, said the normalisation of street harassment has impacted the decisions she makes and how she presents herself in public. “I found myself thinking more about what I was wearing, and how that would affect me on the train, than how excited I was for the party I was getting to,” she said. “The potential for street harassment overwhelms my normal movements around the city.”
“What we’ve found through this process is that there’s a real hunger for this data, for women and girls to share their own experiences and be listened to.”
In the report, researchers collected data on participants’ self-reported experiences of street harassment and assault using an online mapping tool called Free To Be. The tool was developed by Plan International, in partnership with Melbourne digital consultancy CrowdSpot and researchers at Monash University’s XYX Lab. Participants in the study used the tool to report areas in the city where they did and did not feel safe, describing why this was, as well as the exact locations where they experienced street harassment. Many participants expressed that they saw little point in reporting instances of sexual harassment to the authorities, as they either dismissed it, or simply lacked the power to do anything.
The data backs this up. According to the report, in Sydney, where 142 instances were reported to the police, no action was taken for 69 per cent of cases. In Kampala, out of 339 reported incidences, no action was taken for 84 per cent of cases. The report listed a number of recommendations written by women and girls in the five cities to help turn cities into safer and more inclusive places to live. While it notes that the key solution is bringing about cultural change by teaching young boys and men to treat girls and women respectfully as equals, the issue could also be helped by changing the way cities and towns are structured. “Women and girls should become involved in co-designing the cities, so being included in town planning, city design, architecture, that kind of thing, industries which are usually pretty male-dominated,” Crockett said.
The report also recommends that governments implement laws criminalising all forms of gender-based violence, including street harassment. One country taking the lead is France, a country which recently introduced a new ‘cat-call’ fine. A French man became the first person to be fined under the new law in September. He was jailed for three months and fined 300 Euro for smacking a woman on the bottom and making inappropriate comments.
Crockett also confirmed Plan International is “definitely” considering scaling up the Free To Be tool so it can be used by the general public, either online or as an app, but will first need to secure funding. “What we’ve found through this process is that there’s a real hunger for this data, for women and girls to share their own experiences and be listened to,” she said. “We’ve also had an overwhelming response from city councils, police forces, and town planners who haven’t necessarily had access to this kind of information before and are really hungry to incorporate this into their own practices.”
Main image: Alice Rummery,Lauren Lancaster and Kripa Krithivasan/ Plan International
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