Sexual harassment and assault is a serious and serial problem for women in every country across the world. India is just one example, where, as a BBC article argues, “you can wear a trench coat and be covered from head to toe in the depths of an Indian summer but a man with indecent intentions will still try his best to ruin your day.” Yet, such lewd verbal and physical persecution can be carried out with relative impunity.
From my own experiences in India, I know first-hand how street harassment is commonplace and divorced from how you look or what you’re wearing. Sewing extra buttons into my plain canvas shirt, wearing thick grey trousers and foregoing all hygiene – let alone beauty – regimes, I was still attacked by men and boys of all ages on a daily basis. At one point, this even led to my being surrounded by three generations of jeering men whilst attempting to escape in a sub-standard peddlo across Lake Abu!
This behavior, from molestation and “flashing” to anything short of rape, is referred to in India as “Eve teasing.” But this phrase hides the insidious and violating nature of such actions. Under international law, all acts perpetrated against women causing physical, sexual or psychological harm – including threats to take such acts – are defined as violence against women. It is clear: women are not “teased,” they are harassed.
Whilst “Eve teasing” has traditionally been widely tolerated, things may be about to change. In late 2011, two young men were fatally stabbed in Maharashtra state while defending their female friends against a gang of “Eve-teasers.” In response, Valerian Santos, father to one of the victims, is calling for the state government to overhaul the way it deals with sexual crimes. By doing so, Santos adds his voice to a growing group of campaigners demanding change. In response, the Maharashtra government has committed to making laws tougher and ensuring public areas are policed more vigilantly.
Sexual harrassment should never be tolerated. It demeans and it violates. Creating laws that criminalize harrassment is the first step. But, as India demonstrates, these laws are worthless unless respected and enforced. The second step is therefore cultural change. Valerian Santos and his fellow campaigners are at the front of this cultural shift. Let’s hope their government listens and that others follow.
Photo Credit: Christian Haugen