• Areas with high foot traffic and congestion, particularly public transport zones, were harassment hotspots. (E+ / Getty Images)Source: E+ / Getty Images
For more than a third of women, street harassment begins between the ages of 11 and 15.
Susanne Legena

26 Nov 2018 - 12:14 PM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2018 - 2:34 PM

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re heading home after work, running for the train, bus or tram when suddenly, you get chills – there’s a man. Maybe he’s leering at you, catcalling, or pushing up against you in the crowd. Whatever it is, you don’t feel safe.

It’s a disturbing scenario, and if you’ve experienced something similar you’re far from alone. Plan International’s research on street harassment in cities found it to be extremely common. In fact, 90 per cent of young women in Sydney don’t feel safe after dark.

At its core, street harassment is a reflection of the ever-present gender inequality that exists in Australia, and around the world.

It’s not something to be trivialised.

It has serious impacts – restricting women and girls, limiting their ability to move freely around their city and feel safe. Clearly we need to take street harassment seriously, and work to put a stop to it – because all children should grow up free, safe and equal, regardless of their gender, or where they live.  

One difficulty with ending street harassment is that it’s rarely reported, so we don’t have a clear view of the scale of the problem. That’s why we worked with tech company Crowdspot and Monash University’s XYX Lab to develop an interactive online map that allowed girls and young women to report incidents of harassment and highlight where they did and didn’t feel safe – as well as how they thought sites could be improved. We hoped the data we gathered would provide the evidence needed to drive change.

More than a third of the women who experienced it were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 15

Our latest report, Unsafe In The City: Sydney, which highlights the results of that work, shone a light on the scourge of harassment, including particular concerns around public transport. Take the following two disturbing experiences.

“A man on the train, started harassing me on how I looked… only to follow me off the platform pressing his body against me, chasing me down the station and into the shops. Had to hide in the bathroom for a while, as he was still outside waiting for me.”

“My friend was stalked for a month by some guy who said he’d been watching her walk to uni and back. He followed her onto the train, he asked lots of invasive questions, when she ignored him or did not answer, he sat uncomfortably close to her and stared at her... She lost him – but then saw him doing this again to other girls.”

Our research found areas with high foot traffic and congestion, particularly public transport zones, were harassment hotspots. That’s right, many young women are afraid during their daily commute.

We also found harassment starts disturbingly young. More than a third of the women who experienced it were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 15. And most of the reports – over two-thirds or 72 per cent – included sexual harassment of some kind. Fourteen per cent recorded sexual assaults.

Sydney’s women and girls are far from alone.

We first researched street harassment as part of a pilot project in Melbourne in 2016.

The results were so strong, and concerning, we decided to take the project global – carrying out research in five major cities: Sydney, Lima, in Peru, Kampala, in Uganda, Delhi, in India, and Madrid, in Spain.

We found that street harassment is a disturbingly common experience for women and girls in all cities, and it has serious impacts on their lives. Alarmingly, more than 200 young women from the five cities stopped studying or quit their job due to perceived risks; this includes 20 people in Sydney.

Our cities need to be accessible for all who live there. So what exactly can be done?

Boys, men, and girls and women need to understand that that street harassment is not a part of "normal" life

We sought to answer this question in our new podcast Sexism And The City, which aims to start a conversation about modern day sexism and bust common myths about gender inequality – such as that it no longer exists, or isn’t important.

One approach discussed stands out particularly now, in light of the recent high profile reports of harassment in politics and business. That is: the need to challenge toxic masculinity and empower bystanders to put a stop to harassment.

Transport and city authorities have a key role to play. For example, ­they could implement behaviour change advertising campaigns that tackle the root causes of gender-based street harassment, and encourage bystanders to act and call it out.

Boys, men, and girls and women need to understand that that street harassment is not a part of "normal" life. It’s not harmless fun – it’s frightening, disempowering and unacceptable.

It’s clear there is a long way to go. And we each have a role to play – whether it’s by examining the ways in which we perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes or calling out sexist comments or behaviours. Each one of us must take our own stand against harassment - every day.

Susanne Legena is CEO of Plan International Australia. Listen to their podcast, Sexism and The City, hosted by Jan Fran. 

Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS Australia, 4 December, 8.40pm, and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand.

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