According to statistics, 76% of South African women have their first experience of street harassment, which is a form of sexual harassment by strangers in public areas, before the age of 17. Internationally, the number sits at 84%.
Almost half of South African women have experienced being groped, while 72% have been followed by a man or a group of men in a manner that made them feel unsafe. Women who have experienced street harassment admit to changing clothing, transportation routes or completely avoiding an area in an attempt to prevent harassment.
Women are not safe in their communities because toxic patriarchal norms teach what seem to be most men to disrespect and abuse women for their pleasure and amusement.
The scariest form of street harassment I’ve encountered was an incident in which I was walking home from the nearby shops, and four guys traveling in a car took the liberty of insisting that I accept their invitation for a ride. The more I refused, the more irritated they became.
The driver then sped the car up, almost driving into me, and attempted to block my way so that I couldn’t continue walking. It was then that it turned direction and started screaming for help, alerting passerby pedestrians and drivers. Afraid of the commotion I had caused, the harassers quickly drove away.
I was afraid of walking alone for a while, but I had to suck this fear up because I didn’t own a car and had to walk and use public transport to get around.
As a way of protecting myself from being followed, I walked briskly and had an angry look on my face. I believed that getting to where I was going as quickly as possible while appearing violent and unapproachable would ward off potential harassers. I thought that this would create a ready-to-fight impression, and wouldn’t make me an easy target for pick-pocketing or harassment.
Unfortunately, that didn’t stop most street harassers from being invasive by bellowing out, “hello baby. Why are you so angry?”
I stopped wearing skirts when going to town or walking around in my neighbourhood. It would always result in unwarranted attention from perverts who would think that my skirt is an invitation for sexual advances. When I wanted to wear anything short, I resorted to wearing leggings underneath, especially when using public transport to commute. I would take the leggings off when I got to my destination and felt safe enough to do so.
Men tend to whistle and jeer when trying to get the attention of a woman they want to harass. I learned to control the impulse to look in the direction of the whistle, and to completely ignore a street harasser who was jeering at me or trying to talk to me, acting like they don’t exist.
Naturally some would be offended because they feel like they have a right to get their desired response from me, insulting me before backing off or try to pick a fight with me because I didn’t respond to their cat-calls.
It’s unfortunate that women need to find ways of protecting themselves against harassment. It’s unfortunate that harassment of this nature exists because some men believe they have every right to exert abuse on women for their amusement or to make themselves feel powerful.
Will this ever stop?
*image from New York Daily News.