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Women Of The World Unite! (And Men Too)

09/12/2016 11:44

A government report last week stating that almost a third of girls aged 16-18 have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school is both shocking and unsurprising in equal measure. Shocking, because it feels like an impossibly devastating statistic for 2016 Britain. But unsurprising, because what woman hasn't?

Hopefully for most, it was at least not at school - during their most formative years and in the most trusted of places. But few women manage to avoid sexual harassment altogether. Figures show that on public transport alone, three women in the UK are sexually assaulted every day.

What is encouraging however, is that in the current zeitgeist we are finally waking up to the fact that this is not OK.

It's taken us a while. Even last month when the story broke about the Harvard football team who were suspended for ranking and making sexually explicit comments about their female counterparts, there were many who deemed their punishment too harsh. Forfeiting a whole season because of locker room banter? I must admit, even as an ardent feminist, this was my first, instinctual reaction. Because this is normal, I thought. There were plenty of boys' clubs during my time at Cambridge University who similarly scouted and listed which girls were attractive enough to invite to their social gatherings. And at the time, most of the chosen young women were simply glad to be selected. They weren't angry at being judged by their looks. Because, like most women, they had already scurried head-down past construction sites for fear of being shouted at, or had their bums grabbed in clubs, or heard men they admire making jokes about a woman's body, or played with Barbies. They had grown used to being objectified and judged in this way. So, by the grand age of 18 or 19, it was normal.

Except that of course it shouldn't be. And the brilliant campaigns such as #everydaysexism, the brave speeches from the likes of Emma Watson, and the incredible work done by countless charities, have over the past few years begun to challenge the status quo. They have begun to question, and make all of us question, the small, insidious ways in which women are harassed because of their gender.

This is an especially important issue to think about today. As well as November's Elimination of Violence Against Women Day, the UN Information Centre has launched 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, and on December 16th, MPs in the UK will vote on whether to ratify the Istanbul Convention - a bill demanding action on the prevention of violence against women.

It is often at this point in conversations about gender that accusations of drama and hyperbole creep in. Admittedly, it can seem like a leap - the jovial folly of a wolf whistle, to the darkness of rape and violence. Aren't the feminists going a bit overboard? Does it really matter if undressed women adorn billboards that our young daughters walk by? Does it actually make a difference if newspapers focus on our Prime Minister's shoes instead of her words? What's the harm, really, in films that cast women only as somebody's girlfriend or mother or wife?

The harm is immeasurable. Because it is the little things that create an environment from which the big things emerge. In the female psyche, as well as the male. And it is at these very beginnings, it is in that first moment when women become objects and not people, that their safety is put at risk. Objects need not be respected or considered. Objects need not give consent. Things can be done to objects. And while a wolf-whistle, or a football team's list, may seem like 'boys being boys', it remains unsolicited sexual harassment. The moment that that is OK, the moment it is normal to harass, to humiliate, to intimidate or dominate, that is the tipping point. Sadly, a point we passed long ago.

In the most extreme of cases, we see the results today in honour killings. In sexual slavery, such as the crisis being faced by many Yazidi women - kidnapped, sold, abused, sold again, abused again, relentlessly. We see sexual violence as a weapon of war, revving up right now afresh in South Sudan. We see it at home and abroad in soaring rates of domestic violence. We see it on our campuses - in the US, a whopping 23.1% of female undergraduates experience rape or sexual assault at university.

And we see it in the simple lewd cat-call, or President-Elect who thinks its OK to grab a woman by her genitals.

With Donald Trump poised now to become one of the most influential people in the world, the rhetoric we allow him, and others, to spew is important. More astounding than his statements throughout the campaign, was the number of men - and women - who either agreed with him, or were not sufficiently put off by his misogyny to deny him their vote.

But we have come too far to go backwards. We have woken to the notion that consent and respect must be entrenched in the way we treat both girls and boys from the very beginnings. And whether it is in media, in schools, in our homes, or on the streets, we must all speak out loudly against the small, 'harmless' transgressions that ultimately put women at risk. We must not return to slumber.

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