As the 2016 US Presidential elections unfold, something very interesting is happening for women. It is drawing attention to an issue that has been part of the backdrop of many women's lives around the world for a long time. Sexual harassment. Though perhaps it is more accurate to say that it has been at the very forefront of the lives of many women and girls around the world for a very long time. For many women and girls sexual harassment is a daily reality. It happens at school, it happens at work and it happens on the street. I know this because as my travels have taken me around the world over the last 15 years sexual harassment has been a pervasive, difficult and extraordinarily uncomfortable part of that experience. From West Africa to the islands of the Pacific, the jungles of Latin America and the desert of Western China there has not been a single country that I have been to where I have not had the extreme displeasure of experiencing sexual harassment.
My anger over the harassment led me to begin to ask questions. I wanted to know why men were leering at me everywhere I went, why they made degrading remarks about my body and why they laughed at me when I told them to stop. I began talking to women and men everywhere and everywhere they answered in the same way. Whether I was in a bustling Indonesian city or a rural town in Argentina sexual harassment was explained to me as being due to a lack of respect for women. Men view themselves as superior and feel that through their superior status they are entitled to treat women as nothing more than objects. The intensification of this disrespect varies and is usually directly related to the way women are viewed within a particular society. The lower the value of the woman the greater intensity to view her as just a sexual object and therefore open to sexual harassment. After more than 15 years of experiencing this entitled behavior and mocking laughter at my protests to such attitudes I have no doubt that these explanations are the way things are globally.
As the Access Hollywood tape emerged exposing Donald Trumps lewd comments and disrespectful attitude towards women, I was not surprised. Not surprised because there are many men like Donald Trump around the world. Many. I have met them personally. From groups of men in Lebanon laughing about sexually harassing women to watching the smiles spread over the faces of men throughout Latin America as I've complained of sexual harassment, there is no doubt to me that there are many men around the world that enjoy harassing women. For these men sexual harassment is funny, it's a joke. Sexual harassment is not to be taken seriously. Like Donald Trump's dismissal that those disgusting comments he made on that bus was just 'locker room talk' and there are more serious issues that we should get back to, many men just shrug their shoulders and laugh at sexual harassment, they dismiss this issue as 'nothing serious.'
However what Donald Trump and many others like him fail to realise is that this is a serious issue. It's a serious issue for all the women and girls around the world that are forced to be subject on a daily basis to the comments and behavior like that of Mr Trump. It's a serious issue for all the women and girls whose freedoms are limited because of sexual harassment. Whose ability to do basic things like walk down the street are hampered by unrelenting leers and taunts. It's a serious issue for schoolgirls in Mozambique who are unable to attend school without their teachers propositioning them for sex. It's a serious issue for women in Gabon who cannot go to work without their bosses asking them for sex in order to keep their jobs. It's a serious issue for Syrian women living in Turkey who are being treated like prostitutes everywhere they go because Turkish men assume women made vulnerable by war are easy targets. It's a serious issue for little girls living on the street in the Philippines who face sexual harassment from police officers and it's a serious issue for women in the Maldives who report street harassment to be a daily experience. It's a serious issue for me when I cannot walk down the street in the majority of countries that I visit without being scared of what the men on the street corner are going to say to me. It's a serious issue for the women in South Africa who just prefer to stay inside because the sexual harassment is so bad.
In Michelle Obama's impassioned speech last week she really hit the nail on the head when she said, 'the shameful comments about our bodies, the disrespect of our intellect, the belief that you can do any thing you want to a woman. It hurts. It's like that sick, sinking feeling you get when you're walking down the street minding your own business and some guy yells out some vulgar remarks about your body or when that guy at work stands a little too close, stares a little too long that makes you feel so uncomfortable.'
Michelle Obama is exactly right.
Sexual harassment is a serious issue because it destroys lives. It stops women and girls for being able to do the very basic things in life like walk down the street and go to school. It makes you feel uncomfortable and it makes you feel like you're not human.
What this election is doing is bringing this issue to the forefront of the political debate. Maybe now we will see some change in the world as women come forward with their stories and good men speak up publicly against this type of behavior. Maybe now there will be some understanding that these attitudes are unacceptable. Maybe now there will be some recognition of the harm that sexual harassment causes and it will now be taken seriously. I hope so. Because now as I get up to go outside I will continue with my usual routine of bracing myself for an onslaught of possible harassment and looking over my shoulder to make sure no one is following me. I will attempt to avoid the long, lecherous stares of men on the street and I will do my best to be not too upset by the comments thrown at me by men in passing cars. I will try to not to get too frustrated by joyful laughter of men should I choose to protest their harassment and when I get home and see Donald Trump dismissing such behavior as 'just locker room talk' I will try not to be too angry at his suggestion that this behavior that ruins my day everyday, that makes me feel inhuman and makes me cry, is acceptable.
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