'Sexual harassment, well that's everywhere!' says one schoolteacher in the small dusty town of Mbour. I'm in the small West African nation of Senegal researching how women perceive their access to justice for my foundation Project Monma. As part of a study that involves women from four nations, Colombia, Belgium, Australia and Senegal we are trying to learn more about what types of violence women face in their countries and whether they feel they are able to receive justice for the crimes perpetrated against them. The research has brought me to the living room of a small family living in the small dusty town of Mbour. Sitting on a mat on the stone floor, trying to escape the intense heat, the teacher laughs. He does not appear to think that there is something wrong with sexual harassment being everywhere. In fact, he seems to think that it is funny.
'If a woman is sexually harassed, it's her fault,' says the other man in the room, the father of the family, also a teacher. His wife shakes her head, looks at me and says, 'he thinks because of their clothes they can be sexually harassed.'
Sexual harassment did appear to be everywhere in Senegal. Uncomfortable leers from men were a daily occurrence throughout my time in the small West African nation. Men aggressively and obviously leered as women walked down the street with what appeared to be an arrogant sense of entitlement to do as they pleased. They appeared to show little concern for how their behaviour affected women.
Senegal's constitution guarantees equality between women and men and they have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women and the Optional Protocol on violence against women. Despite these steps, inequality and violence against women still appears to be a serious issue in Senegal.
In a report from the Chairperson of the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice Emna Aouij said, 'I am particularly alarmed at the level of violence against women, perpetuated by patriarchal and conservative values. Everyone I met during my visit stressed alarming numbers of rapes, incest, sexual harassment and domestic violence. This is a serious and widespread problem that requires urgent action at all levels.'
The US State Department also reports that women face pervasive discrimination in Senegal, especially in rural areas where traditional customs such including polygyny were the strongest. Rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and discrimination against women were also reported to be present in the country.
My interviews I conducted in Dakar, Mbour and St Louis certainly reflected this inequality. All of the women that I spoke with said that violence was common in their communities. They reported physical and verbal violence from their husbands and rape appeared to be common. I met one woman who was dragged into a car by men and driven out to the outskirts of the slum where she was living in St Louis and raped. She now has a child as a result of that rape with no support from her family. Her family blamed her for the rape, she told me.
Women also reported rape from family members including fathers raping their daughters.
An inquiry by the Committee of Struggle against Violence on Women and Children in Senegal has shown that 65% of the violent incidents occur within the family. The committee also indicated that 58% of the cases are linked to rape, aggression incest, pedophile, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation.
The report also indicated that the stigma and taboo surrounding sexual violence prevents victims from denouncing it.
All of the Senagalese women in our study reported the family as being the biggest barrier preventing them from receiving justice. Women for example said their families would tell them to not report violence from a husband because this could then result in a breakdown of relations. They were told to stay quiet and solve the problem at home.
Several women said sexual harassment in the workplace was a problem, 'when you go to work your boss may ask you for sexual favors,' said one woman. 'It's definitely disgusting.'
'They think of women as animals,' said one woman in an interview in Dakar. 'Sexual assault happens in the street and at the beach.'
Sengalese law prohibits rape but there are few prosecutions according to the US State Department. The Ministry of Justice estimated in 2009 that 47 percent of accused rapists go unpunished and are released without going to trail. Sexual harassment is punishable by law in Senegal but the State Department found that the government did not effectively enforce the law.
None of the women I interviewed were able to recall a law protecting women from violence, some said that they had heard laws but could not say what they were.
Despite these problems women reported feeling that the law would protect them which is a positive move towards women's rights in the region. However, despite these steps towards justice for women in Senegal there is still a long way to go. Whilst women are reporting that sexual harassment, rape and domestic violence as the norm, there is clearly something in the justice system that is not working for women. Part of having access to justice involves an absence of violence. When perpetrators of violence feel that there will be consequences for their actions they are less likely to perpetrate acts that cause harm to others. When they feel that nothing will happen to them they are much more likely to perpetrate violence without concern. Thus, while sexual harassment is 'everywhere' and physical and verbal violence from husbands is considered normal we can assume that men have little concern that they will be held to account for their actions. Justice means calling for the punishment of all perpetrators of violence for all forms of violence and this means punishing men who hit their wives and men who harass women in the street.