Friday, August 9

CAMEROON: Understanding the different forms of street harassment

“In many cities women and girls face violence not only in their homes and in relationships, but also in public spaces,” said Anna Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, and Executive Director of UN-HABITAT, in the Women’s Audit Safety Report findings, 2008.

In Cameroon, street harassment is still an overlooked issue. It is a common sight to see men and even young boys behaving as though it is right to publicly assault or harass a lady.  And for so long, women have been the victims and not the perpetrator of harassment, so much such that most of them deeply believe that such acts of aggression towards women is innate in men, more or less a norm rather than a social issue that needs urgent attention.

During first week of August, I launched an informal online and offline conversation project as part of my SSH Safe Public Spaces Mentoring Program project to engage people in public conversation on street harassment. I collected individual stories of harassment experiences, the majority from Facebook and some from young women in my area. Likewise, I mapped out places/cities that are unsafe or feel unsafe for women and girls in my society. In addition, together with my teammate, Ngwentah Berlyne Ngwalem, we also observed critically how men and women both use the public space both in big cities and remote communities.

Inasmuch as it was difficult for some women to feel safe sharing their experience publicly. At least, it was obvious that many women have experienced one or two or more forms of street harassment, knowingly or unknowingly.  According to available research, as cited in Holly Kearl’s book Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women, it has been proved that “starting at a young age, as many as 80 percent of women around the world face at least occasional unwanted, harassing attention in public places from men they do not know; some women face it daily.”

Young Women’s Experience with Street Harassment

To begin, Berlyne said, “Sometimes I feel like being a woman sucks. You have no say over anything, over your own body, choices etc but people make it seem like you do. There are guys who will tap your ass, touch your chest/breasts, pull up your bra and smile at you before you actually figure out what is happening etc.”

Like Berlyne, another young woman said, “There is this attitude common with bike riders each time they carry a female passenger. They will ride with you and get at some point, they intentionally hold the breaks, clutching back and forth and each time they do that, it is obvious, you fall and lean on their back. But what most female passengers don’t realized is that the whole bike clutching is a trick to have women’s breast pressing over these bikers back.”

For some wicked bikers, she added, “They will position their elbow in a way that as you fall on their back and your breast presses hard on their elbows. And this is really painful. They have done that to me and I felt terrible! I recalled the last time; my breast pained me for closed to a month.”

For another young lady in her late twenties, she explained to us that, “Around the parking lots in her neighborhood at Nsimeyong-damas, in Yaoundé, Centre Region, Cameroon, there is always this particular groups of young guys idling around, throughout the day,” and she has observed that “Each time, a lady pass by, one of those guys must throw a comment, words and / or beckon at the lady or make some funny sound to pull the lady’s attention or provoke her. And in the night,” she added, “These guys can be very aggressive; they have been noted for always attacking / harassing women.

Laura R. Ivy also explained, “Men whistle when you pass and if you don’t answer they insult you. It seems to lessen as you age or maybe you don’t pay attention anymore. The worse is the bikers if one of them asks you where you are going and you don’t answer you receive threats and insults name calling etc.”

“I experience this every day, and honestly it sucks, can men not leave us alone? We have reasons why we don’t want all these primitive guys around, we want mature and responsible men around us,” said Patience Flora.

To another young lady, Konda Delphine, public harassment from men is something that she’s experienced a countless number of times.

From what Berlyne and I observed, the experiences cut across. We saw the same behavior everywhere –  in big cities like Douala, Yaoundé, and in parts of a remote community in Mutengene and /or Buea. We also realized a common behavioral pattern among men of certain profession across the regions. E.g. almost all motor bikers, park loaders, market hustlers, hawkers, have similar attitude and behavior towards women.

This article is the first of my #SSH Efforts in raising awareness and campaign against street harassment in Cameroon. Next will be a focus group discussion with some selected people who have already been contacted. And thereafter, there will be a workshop and also a public poster exhibition and flyers distribution.

Updates on this project can be found at: Women for a Change- Cameroon, or via Twitter @zofem.

This is a cross posting from SSH Blog