Thursday 27 October 2016

COMMENT: I've lived in Dublin for more than a decade - a city that makes me afraid to walk home after dark

Street harassment and catcalls: the everyday sexism that keeps women in fear, writes Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

Published 20/07/2016 | 02:30

Lorraine Courtney Photo: Mark Condren.
Lorraine Courtney Photo: Mark Condren.

Hands up if you've ever been followed down the street? If a stranger has ever commented on your appearance? If you've ever been groped in a club by somebody you didn't want to touch you? Told to "cheer up, love" by a random man? Every one of us has our own story to tell because street harassment has been around since women first dared to walk outside of the cave.

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These experiences are often too small, too difficult to react against in any meaningful way, too frequent to be bothered making a fuss about and that's what makes them so upsetting. Tackling the sexual harassment of women has never been a priority for the authorities but now, in a bid to finally crack down on it, Nottinghamshire Police is expanding its crime categories to include misogynistic incidents.

The force defines misogynistic hate crime as: "Incidents against women that are motivated by an attitude of a man towards a woman and includes behaviour targeted towards a woman by men simply because they are a woman." This means that people can report incidents that previously were not considered to be a crime and the police will investigate.

It means abuse or harassment can be reported to and investigated by the police and support for the victim put in place. It potentially includes catcalling and wolf-whistling in the street as well as the use of a mobile phone to take photographs non-consensually or send unwanted messages. Nottingham Women's Centre has been helping to train call centre staff, police control room staff and officers on the beat to recognise misogynistic hate crime and ways to tackle it.

Harassment, including sexual harassment, threatening, abusive and insulting behaviour, is all prohibited by legislation here in Ireland. However, sexual harassment in the context of street harassment is not specifically defined in legislation. But while there are no specific national anti-harassment policies here, Dublin City Council has put in place a local initiative - it signed up to the United Nations Women Safe Cities Global Programme (SCGP) in 2013. The SCGP works in cities across the globe to prevent and reduce sexual harassment and violence in public places.

It is tempting to think that the battle of the sexes has been won and lost. It hasn't. It's still being fought. Internet campaigns such as #YesAllWomen and Hollaback! - which encourage women to reach out to others they see being harassed - have helped give us all a space to talk about our experiences. The latter is a website dedicated to combating street harassment by letting women post tales, photos and videos of offensive behaviour. When you log in you can see, "Oh, this isn't just happening to me." And for some women, learning that they are not alone can be a watershed.

There are no official figures for street harassment in general, partly because it's not a crime in Ireland and partly because many women don't feel they can report it. The last time women were polled substantially was in 2014 by a Hollaback! and Cornell University global study. Some 88pc of Irish women reported having experienced their first episode of street harassment before hitting 17. Verbal and non-verbal harassment were the most commonly experienced types. Some 69pc had been followed by a man or group of men in a way that made them feel unsafe during the previous year and 14pc of Irish women had experienced this frightening behaviour more than five times.

I've lived in Dublin for more than a decade, where my movement is restricted by a city that makes me afraid to walk home after dark and a city so full of street harassment that catcalls on my morning jog can upset me for the rest of the day.

We are clearly, all of us collectively and individually, affected. It seems odd, in an age when the merest whiff of racism is very rightly pounced upon by the authorities, that everyday sexism is ignored. Men almost have the right to whistle at women. I'm not suggesting that every builder who leers at a passing a woman should be sent straight to jail, but it would be nice to think that this kind of thing would be considered anti-social behaviour. We don't put up with this at home or in the workplace, so why are we putting up with it on the street?

And maybe, just maybe, the powers that be will discover it's time to start penalising men who think it's grand to go out of their way to make women feel uncomfortable, distressed and, at times, traumatised. Women should be able to claim the private and public space to which we are entitled because in big and small ways, harassment changes how women move through the world.

Irish Independent

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