Johannesburg – Today is the last day of 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women and Children, and during this period our Don’t Look Away campaign has highlighted how pervasive and destructive sexual harassment is in our society.
Our snap survey of 121 women showed that women living in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban were subjected to unwanted touching, verbal remarks of a sexual nature and lustful staring.
Almost half of them had experienced sexual harassment in some form or another, and almost 70% of them said it was done by someone they knew; a family member, neighbour, friend, teacher or colleague.
Some were as young as 10 when it happened. It has left its mark on them, they have not forgotten it, and they continue to be subjected to it by other men; your wolf-whistlers, your “hey, sexy baby!” crew, your creepy “bedroom eyes” colleagues and guys travelling on the train or in the minibus with you.
Many of them felt betrayed by their parents in instances where it happened when they were growing up, because no action was taken against the perpetrator. Some felt sad that relationships were destroyed where a relative or family friend was the perpetrator and the families drifted apart.
Others said support from their parents or siblings had helped end the harassment, while others kept quiet, not knowing who to turn to, or worrying that they would not be believed.
Critically, the majority said that the sexual harassment had “changed how I interact with people”, with one respondent saying “I isolated myself from the world” and another saying “I lost trust in men”.
And that is why our campaign has highlighted that the toxic scourge of sexual harassment is not okay. It is against the law, and it does damage to relationships, whether it happens at home, school, on the street, at work or while socialising.
Men who use the argument that “I was only joking” or “I was just complimenting her” miss the point, and need to hear what the respondents had to say about how the unwanted attention made them feel: it made them feel “angry”, “uncomfortable”, “scared” and “embarrassed”, indicating how these toxic behaviours affect relations between women and men, whether the victim is known to you, or is a stranger.
We have reported how women are on “perpetual guard”, never knowing when or where they are going to be inappropriately treated.
Our #dontlookaway campaign on IOL got people sharing and talking about the scourge, and hopefully, has resulted in many men coming to realise that words can be an assault on the person they are addressing, and can have a profound and lifelong impact.
Acumen Media Management, which tracks media and social media trends, had this to say in the first week of the 16 Days campaign: “#16DaysOfActivism makes a massive impact as many carry the #DontLookAway. Social media made it plain that we need far more than 16 days to solve our gender violence issues.”
Through the #metoo movement, women are starting to speak up, shout out loudly when a man makes an inappropriate move or comment, and the men who signed our #countmein pledge have committed themselves to calling it out when they witness it, and to support the victim.
Claudia Roodt, a trauma and wellness therapist in Cape Town said with the campaign at its end, men needed to ask themselves what precautions they have to take each day to protect themselves against violence the way women are forced to.
“From the moment a woman wakes up she has to take precautions. Does she have her pepper spray, has she locked her handbag in her boot, has she locked her car doors? I want men to ask themselves whether they have to take these precautions 365 days a year, like women are forced to.”
Roodt said the #bystander movement drawn from Jackson Katz’ The Macho Paradox sets out to ask: “What kind of bystander are you?” for the very reason that men often turn a blind eye to the abuse of women.
“Men need to ask themselves: ‘what kind of bystander am I?. Do I just stand there, or do I speak up or take action?’
“Men need to ask themselves these questions, because so often they are afraid of their image among their peers, and would rather stay quiet. That needs to change,” she said.
“In his book, Katz says it takes a village to rape a women, and he talks about the larger culture that is involved, that it helps to socialise boys and girls into normalising violence against women.
“We need to look at the cultural practices and norms that we use to socialise boys and girls into, whether it is media, peer culture or gender practices. You cannot lay it at the feet of parents alone. The whole of society needs to take responsibility for violence against women,” she said.
Roodt, like so many activists fighting gender-based violence, believes sexual harassment is a problem men have to eradicate, through their actions, by becoming more informed about all gender-based violence, and the damage it does in our society.
But the most important task they should undertake is making sure that they are good role models to their children and the children in their lives.
How to show your support:
* Take the pledge against sexual harassment
* Join and like Be The Change Mzansi on Facebook.
* Follow the Don't Look Away campaign on IOL