Safe Street Campaign: The First Step To Breaking Sexual Harassment

Asma al-Mohattwari, National Yemen

After several attempts to convince her father to allow her to study in an English institute, Huda had finally convinced her father. She was twenty years old, and was thrilled that at last she would be able to study in an institute. She talked of her new opportunity as though it were a miracle. Huda’s father was not a closed-minded man; he was educated and open, but he wanted to protect his daughter from harassment on the street. Despite his worries, he did not want to break his daughter’s heart by keeping her from studying. He did not know her heart would instead be broken another way.

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One day, Huda was preparing herself for her trip to the institute. It took one hour to travel from her home to the institute facilities. On her journeys to her classes, she had heard different kinds of verbal harassment, but she always ignored them, and never allowed them to disturb her well-being. As days passed, Huda had become accustomed to the verbal harassment. Though it annoyed her, there was nothing she could do “but ignore them.”

One day, however, she noticed a strange man standing beside the institute’s gate, gazing at her. Though she was unsettled by the man, she continued on her way.  The strange man continued to stand in the same place, day after day. When, one week later, she entered the institute without passing the stranger, she sighed deeply and whispered a “thanks be to God,” then entered in the institute. That was when disaster struck: there stood the man in the stairwell.

Huda was confused about what she should do, but decided the best course of action would be to pass beside him to get to her class. In just a moment, she found a reserve of strength and was prepared to pass the man without acknowledging him. She had just passed him when she felt his hand make contact with her; she turned to see that he was harassing her. Without thinking, she threw her books down and raced to her class, where she broke down crying. Teachers, students, friends all asked her “why are you crying,” but she could not find the strength to respond.

Huda stopped going to the institute after that day, and she found herself hating that thing called “study.” She blamed herself for the incident as though it were her fault, but in truth society was to blame. Society was at fault, and the way that it forces women to keep silent in such situations, placing responsibility on the victim instead of the criminal.

Thousands of Hudas suffer from sexual harassment every day, on the street, in the workplace, in shopping centers and anywhere that women go. To fight back against this terrible occurrence, some Yemeni women activists have started a Safe Street campaign. On 2 November 2013, the first conference against sexual harassment was held under the slogan “For Safe Streets: Together Against Sexual Harassment.”

The Safe Streets Campaign currently operates in Sana’a, Taiz, and Aden in the initial phase of its implementation. It aims to monitor harassment cases and encourage society, and women in particular, to break their silence and talk about acts of harassment in order to put pressure on decision-makers to develop solutions to this destructive phenomenon.

Ghida al-Abssi, Safe Streets Campaign director, called on officials to develop a national strategy to fight the sexual harassment phenomenon. She said that the Safe Streets Campaign is determined to break society’s silence. The campaign was launched in August 2011, and it has already become a well-known foundation for its total devotion to bettering the future for men and women.

The first regional conference on sexual harassment was held in 2009, with the participation of activists and leaders women from 16 Arab countries. The conference discussed crimes of harassment throughout the Arab region. The conference described the phenomenon as the Arabic crime of the century for its violation of the feelings and the bodies of 80% of Arab women, who confessed that they had suffered from harassment at some point in their lives.

Despite the spread of the sexual harassment in Arab countries, a small number of Arab countries are paying special attention to the seriousness of this issue. Sexual harassment is a global phenomenon afflicting all human societies, in both developed and developing countries. Studies have shown that Arab countries tend to suffer the most from crises of sexual harassment, which corroborates the claim of 90% Yemeni women that they have experienced harassment in public places or places of work.

Another part of the problem is that few recognize the true effects of sexual harassment. Experts at the conference discussed that terrible impact acts of harassment can have on a woman’s psychology. Psychological effects experienced by harassment victims can include frustration, anxiety, terror, nervous tension, nightmares, a sense of guilt and shame, a lack of self-confidence, depression and isolation. The situation is only when the victim is aware that there is no legal basis by which she might fight the harassment.

Dr. Mohammed al-Mikhlafi, minister of State for Legal Affairs, called on the Yemeni community to address firmly and decisively the phenomenon of sexual harassment in the streets and villages of Yemen.

“Society needs a strong voice to address the phenomenon of sexual harassment. This initiative of the Safe Street conference is necessary to address this phenomenon, taking responsibility for providing a more secure life for women and men”.

To the fathers who prevent their daughters from going outside to protect them from the harassment, al-Mikhlafi said that this prevention is no less dangerous than the harassment itself. “We should fight harassment not by imprisoning women at home, but by establishing legal provisions to protect women from harassment, allowing them to leave the house and move about where they want safely”.

Sara Ghanem, activist and member of the National Dialogue Conference, said that the forces that try to prevent women from leaving the house harm women. “Women do not require an escape from the problem, they require a solution. They should be safe anywhere” said Ghanem.

The percentage of sexual harassment claims has been rising strongly in closed societies that encourage gender separation, as well as those that are open and severe lawlessness. The core problem, though, is that society discourages discussion of harassment incidents, particularly in Arab countries. Many prefer to pretend that no problem exists, while others will talk about the issue but only in secret.

Al-Abssi said that the presence of Dr. Mohammed al-Mikhlafi, the Minister of State for Legal Affairs, at the conference is a very good step to breaking the silence and creating legal limits on this offensive behavior.

The Safe Street Campaign is the first initiative to break the silence in Yemen. It gives attention to the issue, and is working actively to confront harassment legislatively, monitoring studies and reports on the scale and scope of the phenomenon, its causes, and its effects on social, economic, and security.