Friday, November 7, 2014

Street Harassment and Human Rights

by Leigh Goodmark

Photo of Leigh Goodmark


This week’s gender violence controversy:  A woman walks through New York City cataloging the catcalls she draws as she walks.  An advocacy organization posts the video.  Commenters notice that the video only shows men of color harassing the woman on the street.  The organization responds that for various reasons, the white men were all edited out.  And the underlying point of the video is lost in the (both predictable and totally warranted) backlash—that a woman cannot walk down the street in New York City without men of all races commenting on her appearance, her failure to smile, her dress, and her body.

The controversy surrounding the Hollaback! video is unfortunate in that it obscures what is a real problem for all women, but particularly young women.  The right to walk down the street unmolested, unremarked upon, and unafraid should be a basic human right.  That right is jeopardized, however, by the catcalling, commentary, and hostility that many women face when they are unwilling to respond positively to this unwanted attention.  Such harassment reflects the sense of entitlement that some men feel to make their opinions about the women they pass on the street known, regardless of whether those opinions are sought or encouraged.  The extreme end of this exercise of entitlement?  Mary Spears, an engaged woman, was shot to death after she refused to give a man she didn’t know her name and phone number.

Title III of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women requires states to take “appropriate measures…to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men.”  One important question is what form efforts to combat street harassment should take.  In response to the Hollaback controversy, the New York Times Room for Debate offered a variety of perspectives on whether street harassment legislation is appropriate. Whatever one’s perspective on the need for legislation, however, it is hard to argue that women’s exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms is not undermined by street harassment.  Legislatively or otherwise, states need to address this pervasive form of gender discrimination.

For prior posts on this topic click here and here.

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