Street Harrasment: Effective ways to combat the problem

By Chelsea Ellingsen

A scene from the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. Image source: Crises Magazine

A scene from the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle. Image source: Crises Magazine

First of all what is it? I’m continually surprised by the creative sleaziness of men who have taken it upon themselves to harass me in public. Whether it’s a feathery, oh-so-light touch to the ass to an invasive stare as you walk by, the first task in addressing street harassment is to define it. The team at INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence have created the following definition:

An interaction in a public space that makes you feel sexualized, intimidated, embarrassed, objectified, violated, attacked, or unsafe. An interaction in a public space that restricts your movement or makes you modify your behavior in an attempt to avoid the possibility of being verbally and/or physically harassed.

Hollaback! says: “allowing street harassment teaches us to be silent and that taking action will only escalate the situation.” This idea was reinforced in A.N.D’s post last week, on life in Kampala.

Turning a blind eye or passively observing street harassment is a sign of a society that accepts gender based violence as part of its culture. By permitting individuals to undermine others because of their gender is a slippery slope, that ultimately gives a free pass for people to persecute as they wish.

In my adopted home of Uganda, sexual harassment came to the fore  in Feb 2014 when an anti-pornography bill was passed. Many took it upon themselves to police the appearances of women, going so far as to attack ‘suspect’ individuals in broad daylight.

In a picture of one of these incidents, a woman was stripped naked with a dozen men standing over her, jeering. If publicly objectifying people on a count of their gender wasn’t viewed so dismissively these types of outrageous violations wouldn’t be tolerated; they’d be nipped in the bud.

For the conscientious public wondering how they can help a sister out, the first step is realising that this isn’t just a women’s issue. In the same way that police brutality isn’t just an African American issue, we all have to realise our complicity in street harassment. Don’t ever let others inaction justify your own.

Street harassment occurs when an individual or several people make the CHOICE to harass someone; if you want to take an active stance against street harassment, familiarise yourself with how it commonly manifests: lewd remarks, repeated unwanted attention, touching, etc.

Read the situation, your comfort level, your level of assertiveness and choose a Green Dot that works for you: Direct, Delegate or Distract! The Green Dot initiative is a set of defence tools set in place to end gender violence one step at a time. A CDC study showed a 50% reduction of sexual violence incidents in high schools that taught pupils the preventative measures.

Hollaback! Anti street-harrasment campaign posters have been put up in public spaces to raise awareness. This one features on a Philadelphia subway.

Hollaback! Anti street-harrasment campaign posters have been put up in public spaces to raise awareness. This one features on a Philadelphia subway.

Direct: works by talking to the perpetrator, with statements like “hey cut it out, leave them alone,” to checking in with the victim themselves, asking if they need help, if they’re ok, and even standing with them as a deterrent. You can also threaten to call the police or offer to escort the victim to another location.

Delegate is about finding an authority figure on the scene, such as a club bouncer, convincing the stranger(s) around you to intervene or convincing a friend to join in with you.

And my favorite, Distract! When executed well, the harasser won’t even know what happened and this has less potential for conflict. It works well in crowded, noisy places where being heard will be difficult. Shield the target by putting space between them and the harasser. In a quieter space, ask for directions, come up and greet the target as if you know them, or make a slight commotion, spilling your drink or dropping your bags.

When someone else intervenes on your behalf it makes it real. It validates that something wrong was happening and that it should be stopped.

Our actions form our attitudes. Staying silent condones harassment. By taking these small steps we can create a more compassionate community and encourage more pro-active responses.

Maybe knowing these simple preventative measures are out there, will encourage individuals such as the person who filmed a sleeping woman being groped on a New York subway, to put the down the phone and intervene.

The Istanbul Convention: #ICchange

By Soffi James

Image source:

Image source:

The Istanbul Convention could bring about a drastically positive change in the way that gender based violence cases are handled in our society, yet it has until now lacked the exposure it deserves and even failed to make it into any of the manifestos of the major political parties. Our blogger Soffi tells us more about this important legislation and the group who are campaigning to see it be adopted here in the UK.

The winds of change are blowing as the new UK government settles itself into in the Houses of Parliament. Much disappointment and unrest has seized the country in the weeks after the election, particularly with reference to the reformation of the Human Rights Act. The recent pledge by Justice Secretary Michael Gove that, if the reforms are rejected by Strasbourg, the UK will pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights, is an untimely regression for women’s rights. But, in this period of revision and transformation, these winds can be harnessed in the direction of positive change for women. A convention – the first of its kind – was made open for signatures on May 11th 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Its aim: solely to tackle sexual and gender based violence. Its name: The Istanbul Convention.

It is the first legally binding instrument in the world that creates a comprehensive legal framework to protect women against gender-based violence. If ratified by any government, the convention will prevent, protect and prosecute in the name of victims of attack. The Istanbul Convention goes into fine and necessary detail, categorizing the types of violence women can be victim to, the different preventative solutions and the numerous actions that can be taken after the fact.

Ground-breaking work could be done under this convention. It will prevent further cuts to domestic violence refugees that happened as a result of austerity measures by the previous UK government. It makes it a matter of law that the country must provide sufficient sexual violence shelters and centres for its citizens, alongside psychological and medical support, and legal aid. It outlines preventative measures, such as providing education in schools on domestic violence, healthy relationships and self respect for girls and boys. Issues such as Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriages will be criminalized. All this, in an entirely open and inclusive umbrella – this support will be available to women regardless of race, creed or colour, or any other self-identification category for that matter.

Image source:

Image source:

Victims will be safer under the protection of this convention. Cases like, Laura’s, whose name has been changed for anonymity purposes, would hopefully no longer be in our headlines. Laura was raped, and went to the police. She was then mistrusted and misrepresented by those who should have been the arms of protection, not prosecution. They failed to properly collect evidence from her T-Shirt, despite her assurance that a DNA test would incriminate her rapist. Article 50 of the Convention may have prevented Laura’s two subsequent suicide attempts:

“Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that the responsible law enforcement agencies engage promptly and appropriately in the prevention and protection against all forms of violence covered by the scope of this Convention, including the employment of preventive operational measures and the collection of evidence.”

The UN has called the Istanbul Convention the “gold standard” for reducing sexual violence cases. It all sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. The winds are changing and European countries are taking the helm. At least, some of them are. To date, 18 countries have ratified the Istanbul Convention, including Finland, Monaco, France, Denmark, Spain and most recently, Poland. Most of the nations in the Council of Europe have signed the Convention, but still refuse to embrace its laws into their own legal system.

Sadly, in the UK’s recent election, none of the parties mentioned the Istanbul Convention in their manifestos. The safety of women against sexual violence was apparently not at the top, or even on the agenda. For such an important movement to go unnoticed is worrying, but a group of campaigners have been working to change this, with the hashtag #ICchange.

This campaign urges the UK government to act on the promise it made by signing the treaty on June 8th 2012. Their reasoning is clear and concise, and the statistics shocking. They report that every week an average of 2 women are killed by a partner or ex-partner, and 233 women are raped daily. 112 refugee women and 84 children were turned away on one day this year. Support services are underfunded and overwhelmed, and #ICchange are trying to get countries to invest more resources and effort into reducing these numbers.

This international convention should be included in UK national laws, and the laws of other countries. Those countries that have signed the convention, like the UK, have only provided a handwritten agreement with its premise, not an agreement to do what it says. We need more than promises, we need commitment. Legal commitment. That would mean that each woman would not only be relying on her own government; she could call on higher international powers to ensure her own safety and the safety of other women across the world.

For further information on Istanbul Convention, click here [}

If you agree with the #ICChange movement, you can sign the petition to ratify this Convention in the UK government here.


Street Harassment in Uganda: Maybe this is why it is so under-reported?

Credit: Jennifer Robinson

Kampala/Jinja Road. Credit: Jennifer Robinson

Our blogger this week, Lindsey, recalls her frustrating and fruitless attempt to report the type of street harassment that is experienced on a daily basis by women in Kampala.

By Lindsey Kukunda

Ugandan Journalist Patience Akumu once wrote about her experience being sexually harassed in Kampala’s Owino market. When she poured a bucket of water over her attacker, she was surrounded by furious witnesses, accusing her of over-reacting.

My visit to the police post in the taxi park to report sexual harassment recently left me being interrogated for ‘misbehavior’ regarding my response to my attackers. It also left me wishing I could do what Patience had done. Taken justice into my own hands.

I was about to cross the road, passing by the boda boda* and bicycle stage and from experience could tell that one of them was about to try something with me. Sure enough, I was about a half meter away from him when he stretched his arm out, hand extended in a grabbing gesture toward my arm.

Jangu baby (Come here, baby)”, he said loudly, demandingly, his fingers just about to brush my upper arm.

“F*ck you”, I snapped as I jumped away from him. (A warning, reader: I swear like a sailor and it comes as naturally to me as breathing. But see how my free use of language was to soon deem me a ‘criminal’ inside a police post).

In a trice, he and two of his colleagues proceeded to shout at me. As usual. It was cool for them to touch me and grope me and pull at me but hot damn if I insult their feelings in any way. I don’t speak Luganda** but I could tell they were not saying nice things. I stood there, silent, as they shouted and shouted. And suddenly I was just tired of my society.

Tired of everyone walking by, acting like I had asked for this by reacting. Tired of nobody caring. Tired of the men knowing they can get away with touching and abusing young women to the end of their days. I decided that enough was enough. I turned around, their insults still pounding my ears, and walked to the police post a few meters away. There were three policemen seated inside, lounging on the benches.

As I told my story, their expression turned from concern to amusement and outright sneering. They were smiling.

“But now you”, the first policeman said. “Who do you think started this fight?”

I started to shake inside as I realised the police men were about to turn this around on me.

“I think he started it when he tried to grab me”, I responded, trying to keep a calm tone.

“But did you have to escalate the situation?” one of them asked. “You should have just kept quiet and come and reported the men. Now it’s like there’s no case”.

“You’re telling me I’m obligated to react passively to assault before I can expect justice from the law?” I asked incredulously. “I get abused in one way or the other every day in this taxi park but I have to watch my language?”

“I’m saying that you should not have abused the man. That is how things got out of hand”. Their faces and voices were starting to blur into one – they were not interested in my reporting a sexual harassment case a stone’s throw away from their office. I became desperate. I offered myself up as a guilty party, anything to see them do something.

“Okay, let’s do this”, I said. “How about you come with me, arrest the men and then you can also deal with me for abusing the one who tried to grab me?”

They did not budge.

“We want you to understand that what you did was wrong”, they continued, laughing now. “You tried to take the law into your own hands”.

I couldn’t believe it. I was standing in a police station, reporting a case as per proper procedure, and they were accusing me of taking the law into my own hands! They were too busy defending my attackers to arrest them. I could feel tears of rage and disappointment welling up in my eyes.

“Thank you for your time”, I whispered to them. They nodded benevolently as I turned and walked away. Back past the bicycle men who laughed at me when I passed them. Because they know that society will never hold them accountable for assaulting the decency of a woman.

So have you heard, ladies? When you are assaulted, you are to do everything possible to not annoy your attacker. You must respect their feelings. If you don’t ‘escalate’ the situation by responding ‘negatively’, only then can you go to a police post.

That we still have society telling women how they ought to behave themselves as victims, is a tragedy of massive proportions.

If a man were physically assaulted, I’m 100% sure those police men would not have blamed him if he’d reacted physically, attacking in self-defence. But when you’re a woman, you have to evaluate how you were dressed, what language you used, and who knows what else the Uganda police has in its ‘Victim Causation’ files. You’ve got to be a ‘good woman victim’ to deserve their concern.

Women’s empowerment in 2015. What a sham.

*Motorcycle taxi

**Native language of the Buganda kingdom in central Uganda

Gendered parenting: Preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission

By Laura Mundy

Photo credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran:

In this short fictional piece, our contributing writer Laura Mundy tells a story which is so often left untold. She considers how PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission) places full responsibility on a woman to protect her child from HIV; and in turn alienates or excludes the father’s role in this effort.


She is the topic of conversation among family, friends and neighbours. She can’t walk down her road without hearing people’s comments. Shunned and stigmatised, she’s fully aware that everyone has assumed why she’s not breastfeeding her baby. Sadly, their assumption is right; she has HIV.  


She’s all alone when she finds out she is HIV-positive. She gets her results after being tested at her first antenatal appointment. She has no-one to cry, scream and shout with, no-one to hold her hand. 

At the clinic, she’s asked if she always has access to clean, boiled water and money to buy formula feed. She responds, ‘yes’. From there, she is advised to completely avoid breastfeeding after she gives birth. Instead, she must formula feed her baby so she doesn’t give HIV to her new-born child.  

Now at her second antenatal appointment, she’s had to go to a different location, to a PMTCT clinic. It specialises in the ‘prevention of mother-to-child transmission’ of HIV. She’s nervous because she’s still not used to seeing doctors. She waits patiently for her turn. Beside her, other pregnant women are jumping the queue.

                     ‘Bring your partner along and you’ll be seen first’ – the sign reads.  

Her husband, the father of her unborn child, knows that men are encouraged to come along and test for HIV at the PMTCT clinics in Nigeria. But he’s scared. He also thinks that babies are a woman’s responsibility and refuses to join her.  

He won’t get tested so he doesn’t know his HIV status. She doesn’t know for certain how she became HIV-positive, but knows about HIV transmission from school so knows it could only have been from him. She has only had one sexual partner ever.  

Her husband is the only one who knows she’s got HIV. The night she told him was the night the abuse started. New house ‘rules’. Forbidden to leave unless it’s to go to the clinic or to get food. Isolated. Alone. He doesn’t want anyone to know that she is living with So no-one will find out she has HIV. Or rather, he doesn’t want anyone to think he has it too.  

When the baby is born, he pushes her to breastfeed so that the neighbours don’t start asking questions. Today it’s just verbal, but last week he pushed her so hard she hit her head. But she won’t give in… she won’t breastfeed. 

Alone, she travels to get more antiretroviral drugs for herself from the clinic, buy formula feed, and take her baby to get tested at 2 months old. Alone, she returns to find out the results of her baby’s HIV test… alone she rejoices as it comes back negative.

Through all this she feels very lucky. Lucky that she’s had the choice of being able to formula feed. Lucky that she’s not one of those mothers with HIV who have to breastfeed, to avoid mixing formula feed with dirty water that could make their baby seriously ill. 

And yet, she can’t help but feel angry and hurt at her husband. Alone, she had to work to ensure that their baby is HIV free. Now, she has to manage living with HIV, and take treatment for the rest of her life. It’s time he tested for HIV too.

This story is a fictional adaptation of a scenario that is all too familiar to many women around the world. It is based on accounts that I have read as part of my work as Senior Editor for an international HIV and AIDS charity.

 Around the world, PMTCT is a well-utilised and highly effective HIV prevention programme. World Health Organisation guidelines state that if a mother who is living with HIV takes antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) throughout pregnancy and formula feeds her baby, the child is unlikely to get HIV. If formula feed is not an option, she can exclusively breastfeed whilst adhering to ARVs, which will reduce the likelihood of HIV transmission from breast milk. 

But it’s the name of the programme I take issue with. The ‘prevention of mother-to-child transmission’ suggests that the burden lies solely upon the mother, with no responsibility on the father. Men need to become more involved in the PMTCT process. They need to test for HIV and they need to support their partner in decisions around the future health of their child. 

I do not claim to understand the realities of what it is like for this particular woman living in Nigeria. Her story is used to highlight the frequent gender divide in the responsibility of preventing a child being born with HIV. Programmes should be developed that balance this disparity, recognise when a woman may be at risk of gender-based violence and encourage men to know their HIV status sooner.