March 13, 2011 marked the 8th annual WOMEN FIRST 5km race, which is the second largest running event organized by the Great Ethiopian Run. It was my first time running this race and I was excited about my participation. As I walked out of my house headed towards the starting point, I overheard two security guards who were sitting and watching the participants gather say to one another, “Today we’re going to look at butts”. Instantly, I was filled with an array of emotions that ranged from anger to sadness. The anger was an instantaneous reaction that emanated from a feeling of helplessness that however many advances we make as women, our reduction as body parts was inevitable to some sections of the male grouping. The sadness was deep-seated and of the realization that for all the men that were out there supporting their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends and friends, there were equally many men who were at that point objectifying women’s activism.
Towards the starting line, two young boys walked through the crowd of women as one of them shouted supportive statements, telling us to “do well” and “not give up”. Quickly before he left the area, I shouted to him that supportive statements is what women need and that he remember to continue this constructive practice in all aspects of his life. He gave me a puzzled look and continued forward.
I am not the first woman and will not be the last that has had her fair share of street harassment in Addis Ababa. What astounds me the most is that some of these men can be very graphic in their sexual innuendos and actually find their own vulgarity quite humorous. I have heard so many variations of these verbal abuses as a recipient and also as someone who heard these offensive statements being tossed at random women. It seems these days the most common verbal diarrhoea is the “how much” question which posits that all women/girls walking around the streets of Addis Ababa are sexually available on demand to men.
With so many loose and lewd tongues, it gets tiring to address each one with a disapproval which creates the illusion that silence is approval or fear. A reaction or rise from the harassed is welcomed and taken as an affirmation thereby encouraging more statements. However, ignoring it won’t make it go away. My belief is that there is a thin line between “simple” street remarks and their physical manifestations into sexual and physical violence. The mind that can breed and communicate lewdness in a public arena, in my opinion, is not too far off from the mind that can physically violate, as one element of inhibition has already been relinquished.
Although I have not come across material documenting the effects of street harassment on the psyche of women and girls in Addis Ababa, I do not doubt that there are many effects, some of which include safety issues. Personally, I don’t find this issue to be only a mere annoyance but instead as a societal manifestation of some sort of dysfunction that needs to be taken seriously and addressed. Whether addressing it is done within each home or through the education sector, it is a matter of importance nonetheless. I often hear comments that “it’s just the bum off the streets who say these things”. But is not the “bum off the street” a fabric of this society? This means he has learned it from somewhere and can unlearn it too. Besides, I have come across men of all backgrounds engage in street sexual harassment, so that excuse to allocate the lewdness to the “bums” just does not hold as far as I am concerned!
Unwanted sexual jokes, remarks, questions, teasing and touching all constitute sexual harassment. And each man engaged in one of these is a sexual harasser who creates a hostile social environment for each woman and girl that his words and sometimes touches target. Everyone needs to feel safe and comfortable in public spaces and it is all of our responsibility to ensure that is so.
Love & Light