“I was never a fearful person, but today I am afraid.” That’s what I thought when walking to a friend’s house nearby to return a phone he lent me after mine was stolen.
Both times, I was walking down an avenue. At some point in my life I was told that it was better to opt for larger streets, because there are more people there. However, as I was walking I realized that, if I were lucky, 1 out of every 10 people on the street was a woman. On a journey of less than 1km, in a “safe” neighborhood in Bogotá, two men verbally harassed me. Then, from a patrol car, two policemen stared at me and not specifically to ask for my ID. I changed my strategy and opted for smaller, quieter streets. At least there I didn’t have to face predatory eyes.
I started to think that since the COVID-19 emergency began in Latin America, I have read multiple articles related to the differential impact of the pandemic on women due to gender inequality, but nothing about street harassment in the time of COVID-19.
I could not help myself and Googled “COVID street harassment coronavirus pandemic.” No relevant result in Spanish. The English option showed (only) three relevant results, all from English newspapers indicating an increase in street harassment (1, 2, 3). Are we not going to talk about that?
What has been discussed?
So far, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Development Bank itself have focused on differential impacts of COVID-19 on women, mainly due to aspects related to job insecurity, caregiving responsibilities, and domestic violence.
It seems to make sense. According to Violentadas en Cuarentena (Women Assaulted in Quarantine) in my home country of Argentina, there is a femicide every 29 hours, in Colombia every 26. In Argentina there was a 39% increase in reports of domestic violence during the first ten days of quarantine. In Colombia, between 163% and 553%.
In May, UN Women published a document in English on COVID-19, safe cities and public spaces for women and girls that, among other forms of gender-based violence, expressly pointed out street harassment. In Argentina there is a law against it, and before COVID it was already estimated that 100% of women have been victims of street harassment at some time in their lives, and we know that the numbers for the region are not any better.
Why is it important to talk about this?
Street harassment is a type of sexual and verbal harassment that occurs in public spaces and that affects mainly women and girls. It is based on gender inequality and amounts to a violation of our right to live a life free of violence. It ranges from unwanted sexual comments and groping to rape and murder.
This type of violence silences us and reduces our ability to participate fully in public life, access services and fully enjoy and exercise our rights. According to UN Women, we do not report street harassment due to a lack of confidence in the authorities, lack of legislation and/or poor implementation of existing laws, but also due to the stigma that it may cause us or because we fear that, if we speak up, the authorities and even our families, friends and partners will impose additional restrictions on our mobility.
In the midst of the pandemic, measures such as social distancing and curfews decrease the number of people on the street, resulting in a heightened risk of sexual violence when we go out to work, to the supermarket, to exercise, etc.
What to do?
To fight back street harassment during COVID-19 we need to:
- Work in collaboration with governments, companies, the media, international organizations, civil society, feminist movements.
- Develop reliable, systematic, and disaggregated data and information systems. Their absence perpetuates a great challenge in the region. UN Women provides some suggestions on how to do it.
- Come up with gender-sensitive and targeted solutions that are locally, culturally and linguistically relevant and accessible, and include women and girls in all the decision-making process.
- Make it visible. Accessing information is key to exercising rights. Knowing that street harassment is not normal and that we have the right to a life free of violence is essential.
- Raise awareness and prioritize its prosecution. Cases of gender-based violence should be treated as a priority during the emergency, and the personnel in charge of assisting the victims must be educated to avoid reproducing gender stereotypes and re-victimizing those who report it.
- Invest in security and public infrastructure that help ensure safe public spaces that provide a life free of violence for women, including public lighting, public transportation and safer communing options, security cameras, among others.
- Review existing protocols and public policy in relation to the pandemic to guarantee the safety of women in public spaces on the street, on public transportation, face-to-face and via telephone assistance services, etc.
And, of course, allocate sufficient economic and human resources to make all of the above possible and thus guarantee all women the life we deserve: a life free of violence.