It's late afternoon and I'm in Pretoria, South Africa. A friend has invited me to meet with friends in the city. A group of young Africans arrive and one of the women is introduced to me as a soldier. Interested I ask her what it was like for her. She looks down sadly and tells a story that I know all too well. A story of sexual harassment. 'I quit my job with the South African army because the sexual harassment was so bad,' she told me. When she tried to take one of her commanders to court after he behaved inappropriately towards her she was told by the military court judge, 'what did you expect with your complexion and your body.'
Disturbed by this blatant act of discrimination, I visited one of the military offices in Pretoria in an attempt to learn more about sexual harassment in the military. I was unable to speak with any of the female military offices but I did notice the walls were lined with a number of signs saying no to sexual harassment and discrimination. There had clearly been an issue.
Sexual harassment. It is one of the most commonplace and accepted forms of violence around the world. Leers, inappropriate and degrading comments are a daily reality for many women around the world. Men shrug their shoulders at complaints, 'don't be so sensitive,' they say. 'You're overreacting.'
South Africa is no stranger to the problem of sexual harassment. And not just in the military. It happens in the streets and it happens in the workplace. Men leer aggressively as women walk down the street and do so with a sense of arrogance and entitlement.
'I don't go out,' said one young South African woman to me in Johannesburg. She's uncomfortable with the way men treat her in the street.
'It's a daily occurrence,' a South African friend told me. It was certainly a daily occurrence for me whilst in South Africa. Whether it was men shouting in inappropriate comments at me on the street or their sleazy looks, I was uncomfortable.
A South African friend recounts being harassed at worked then being told she was overacting when she made a complaint. 'When your trying to walk down the street guys will catcall and they'll grab onto you when they want your attention. They're very aggressive and act as if it's obligatory that you have to talk to them. They feel entitled to women and they don't understand when you say no. It's really annoying.' Even police make sexual comments and ask girls for their phone number, she tells me.
The violence is increased with the silencing of women's voices. As in many parts of the world, taboos are placed on women using their voices. Women are expected be quiet, submissive, even in the face of violence and abuse.
When I asked one man in Pretoria why men harass women he shrugged his shoulders and said, 'this is Africa.' The problem however, is not limited to Africa. Sexual harassment is a global problem and certainly one of the most distressing, disrespectful and commonplace forms of violence that I have encountered in my global travels. The dismissive attitudes to the problem by many men and their claims to cultural entitlement to harass women add to the insult.
Silence is one of the biggest problems with sexual harassment. Too many girls think they need to accept this as the norm and too many good men do nothing to stop it. We all need to stand up against sexual harassment. This means not laughing when a girl makes a complaint, not dismissing her and not telling her she's being too sensitive or overreacting. It means taking harassment seriously and expressing disgust at the perpetrators of such violence. It means saying something when you see it happening and understanding that catcalling, aggressive staring and touching without permission is violence. It is disrespectful and it is disempowering.
As part of my work for Project Monma I gave a talk on violence and discrimination against women to a group of teenagers in Cape Town. I asked them to draw how sexual harassment affects the body. One girl drew a picture of a flower, and it was broken. This South African girl understood the effects of sexual harassment, as making you feel broken. And it does precisely that. It makes you feel broken. The time to speak out against sexual harassment is now, in South Africa or wherever you are. Every girl and woman has the right to be in public spaces free from verbal abuse and disrespect and we are all responsible for making that happen.
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