Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Growing Movement to Curb Street Harassment

The movement against street harassment is growing.  And leading anti-harassment advocacy groups like Hollaback and Stop Street Harassment characterize it as a basic human rights issue.

Most women experience street harassment as a constant concern which can range from mildly annoying to intimidating and physically threatening.  In 2012, film student Sofie Peeters used a hidden camera to chronicle a "day in the life" of a Belgian woman who was repeatedly accosted by men as she made her way through the city on foot.  Importantly, even women who feel relatively unphased by street harassment nevertheless change their daily behavior in order to avoid it -- for example, driving in the city instead of walking, wearing sunglasses and avoiding places where men may be congregating.

Wide access to social media is an important factor fueling the resurgence of interest in, and activism on, this issue, as women can easily share their experiences on-line and provide support for confronting the harassers or seeking policy changes.  Indeed, the Belgian film went viral and prompted new legislation in Belgium to criminally punish harassers with fines or even imprisonment.  In India, Egypt and a growing number of other locales, activists are using on-line mapping to pinpoint areas where street harassment  most often occurs and to call for a greater law enforcement presence.

Socially-engaged art has also helped build momentum to take this issue seriously.  For example,  feminist artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, who will be in residence at Northeastern University next week, has traveled around the country with her participatory public art project on street harassment, Stop Telling Women to Smile

The United Nations spoke to this in 2013, when the UN Commission on the Status of Women for the first time adopted language highlighting the prevalent sexual harassment that women experience in public spaces around the world:

    "The Commission expresses deep concern about violence against women and girls in public spaces, including sexual harassment, especially when it is being used to intimidate women and girls who are exercising any of their human rights and fundamental freedoms."

    A major impact of unchecked street harassment is to discourage women from walking freely in the city and engaging in active participation in civic life.  In light of this, the UN document also calls upon nations to "[i]ncrease measures to protect women and girls from violence and harassment, including sexual harassment and bullying, in both public and private spaces, to address security and safety, through awareness-raising, involvement of local communities, crime prevention laws, policies, programmes such as the Safe Cities Initiative of the United Nations, improved urban planning, infrastructures, public transport and street lighting, and also through social and interactive media." 

While it remains to be seen what approaches will be most effective, i.e., enhanced penalties and other deterrents as in Belgium, redesigned public spaces, public education, or others, the encouraging news is that as a result of women's activism and leadership, street harassment is increasingly understood as a global human rights issue requiring serious responses and ideas for effective change going forward.

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