If you are a woman, odds are you have had this experience….
You’re walking down the street, perhaps thinking about your day and what you plan to accomplish. Then you hear a voice yelling at you, perhaps mixed with whistles or noises, saying something about your body or appearance. Sometimes it feels unclear whether or not you are allowed to feel offended by whatever was said, and sometimes it’s perfectly clear that the words are meant to reduce you to an object for sexual gratification. However, what’s almost never clear is exactly what you should say or do in this situation. Just ignore them? Tell them that their commentary is unwelcome? Or go even further and seek justice?
This dilemma is familiar to women the world over, but in India, it’s so ubiquitous that, according to one study, 95% of women reported that their mobility was restricted because of fear of male harassment in public places, and the majority of these women fail to report such harassment because it has been taken for granted that nothing can be done about it.
That’s what makes Rajkumari’s story even more remarkable.
Distance and scorching heat were not the only things that made Rajkumari dread her long journey from her village of Nagla Mai to her secondary school in the neighboring village of Mai. Each day, a boy in the neighboring village would harass Rajkumari with lewd comments as she passed. While many girls just try to ignore these kinds of comments, Rajkumari did not shy away from confronting the boy. She made it clear to him that she would not tolerate this kind of disrespect.
Unfortunately, standing up to him did not stop the harassment.
As a part of Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program, Rajkumari attended life skills classes where topics like confidence, self-respect, initiative, and tenacity feature heavily in the discussions. Rajkumari brought up her problem with her class-mates and mentor.
Social Mobilizers, or program mentors, are sometimes required to make home visits to inquire about a girl’s absence or struggles, or to address challenges presented by the parents themselves. In this case the whole group, in solidarity with Rajkumari, decided to pay a home visit to talk to the boy’s parents about his verbal abuse. Much to their surprise, the boy’s mother refused to listen — throwing them out of her house.
Provoked by Rajkumari’s attempted intervention and emboldened by his mother’s support, the boy escalated his harassment.
“You will not even see the front of your school,” he threatened ominously.
Unfaltering, Rajkumari refused to be intimidated.
“I was positive that I wanted to teach this eve-teaser (euphemism for sexual street harassment) a lesson,” she said. Responding with her own escalation, Rajkumari brought the issue to the attention of the school authorities with the support of Room to Read staff, which was then followed by giving her report to the local Gram Panchayat (village council).
Fortunately, several members of the council had participated in Girls’ Education program meetings in the past and had already come to recognize and appreciate the value of protecting their girls and their education. Taking the matter seriously, the council called a meeting to address the issue. The boy’s parents reluctantly apologized to Rajkumari. However, the boy himself did not show up.
Unsatisfied and undaunted, Rajkumari stood by her demand that the boy himself apologize to her and be punished for his behavior. So, threatening legal recourse, the council gave him only one option.
They required the boy to bow down and apologize to Rajkumari in the presence of the entire village, which he finally did.
Promising not to mistreat any girl again, the boy was given a chance to mend his ways or face police intervention. The incident not only brought the issue of “eve-teasing” and street harassment to the attention of the village council, it also strengthened Rajkumari’s confidence in her own power to demand respect and to create change for herself and others.
Now that is not a bad way to deal with street harassment.