There is much to love about living in a city. Cities are vibrant, fascinating places that pulse with life and diversity. But not everyone experiences the same place in the same way. For some, cities can be frightening.
A couple of years ago, in Melbourne, Plan International Australia got a group of girls and city planners, police and public transport authorities together for a simple yet strikingly effective exercise: a walk through the city.
The girls shared stories about the things they’d experienced. Some told stories of being cat-called. Others talked about being followed and physically assaulted.
They spoke about how they’ve learned to modify their routes to avoid an area where they know they’ll be hassled. They talked about the thought they put into what they wear and how they behave: is my outfit too provocative? If I walk too slowly or make eye contact, will I attract the wrong type of attention?
They spoke of feeling like targets, when all they want to do is get from point A to point B.
One of the urban planners on the walk, a man in his 50s, told us that every day he’d walked those city streets and not once had he considered it from the perspective of a girl. The experience, for him, was profound and eye-opening.
“Do you think my teenage daughter goes through this stuff too?” he asked. The tough answer is yes, she probably does.
Any woman who has been harassed will tell you that more often than not, they feel powerless to respond. They feel embarrassed. They have a very real fear that confronting their harasser will place them in greater danger
When Plan International set out to better understand street harassment, a mostly undocumented phenomenon that affects girls all around the world, we didn’t realise just how deep the rabbit hole would go. Through our Safer Cities for Girls program we’ve found is that in all societies, street harassment is far more common than we imagine.
Today we’ve launched a new report, Sexism in the City, which focusses on the experiences of young women in Sydney. The report, for the first time, provides evidence that street harassment has serious and lasting effects on the wellbeing of girls and women. This survey of 500 women aged 18 to 25 has revealed that one in three who have been harassed more than once a month experience anxiety or depression as a direct result.
In almost all cases, the perpetrators were men (95 per cent). Disturbingly, one in three young women said they were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 15. And yet, most do not formally report it.
One young woman on our city walk made the striking point that every day, she changes out of her school uniform to commute to and from school, to avoid unwanted attention.
Unfortunately, street harassment is often a silently endured experience. Those who perpetrate it do so to cause humiliation or to provoke a reaction. Their aim is to assert dominance over a young woman or – as our research shows - a girl. They often single out girls who are alone, at any time of the day or night in any location, but frequently around or on public transport.
When we call men on this behaviour, the response we get is ‘it’s harmless’ or ‘it’s a compliment’ or that it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’. This reasoning does not fly. I refuse to accept that threatening any person who has precisely the same right to inhabit that space as you do is light-hearted fun.
Yet because it’s not taken seriously enough, either by authorities or the general public, the behaviour persists and indeed flourishes.
Any woman who has been harassed will tell you that more often than not, they feel powerless to respond. They feel embarrassed. They have a very real fear that confronting their harasser will place them in greater danger.
So we endure it. We internalise it. As women often do, we shift the blame inwards. We wonder if it might’ve been avoided with a longer skirt. We scold ourselves for not being completely aware of our surroundings or not taking steps to quietly remove ourselves from the situation. But most of the time, we don’t report it.
When asked what they did in response to the most serious incident they had experienced, only one in 13 (7%) young women Plan International Australia surveyed reported it to authorities. Reporting to family and friends was more common (60%), but almost a third (30%) did nothing.
It stands to reason that if it’s mostly men who are partaking in this behaviour, it’s up to men who deplore it to lead the change
The responsibility to improve rates of reporting should not lie with victims, but rather with authorities. Unfortunately, the vast majority of young women (85%) feel that reporting systems for street harassment are simply not good enough.
We want to see those with a stake in city safety, whether it is councils, city planners, police or transit authorities, step up and take this issue seriously. We can start with smart city design that discourages harassers and empowers women. We can take steps to ensure women and girls feel safe and supported to report it when it happens.
Overwhelmingly, 9 out of 10 young women surveyed in Sydney told us that men in particular have an important role to intervene if they see street harassment occurring.
It stands to reason that if it’s mostly men who are partaking in this behaviour, it’s up to men who deplore it to lead the change. After all, half the young women we spoke to in Sydney said street harassment has made them more wary of all men, which ultimately does them a disservice.
What the Sexism in the City report tells us, loud and clear, is that cat-calling and menacing behavior is not ‘harmless fun’. It has real and lasting repercussions. It’s affecting the well-being of our young women at home and around the globe and in many cases, they are simply opting out of using public spaces.
The most pressing question that remains is not how we are going to begin to fix this, it’s when. And the answer has to be: now. As #MeToo and #TimesUp are shifting the dial on inequality worldwide, the time is right to make lasting changes. All of us can and must be allies in this change.
Susanne Legena is CEO of Plan International Australia.
Plan International is currently collecting data on girls’ and young women’s experiences of street harassment in five cities worldwide: Madrid, Sydney, Kampala, Lima and Delhi, with a series of Google-style maps. The Free to Be city safety maps are open for entries until the end of May.