Walking down the street, alone, past a group of guys hanging out with nowhere to go. Her guard goes up, and preparation takes place. Many things could happen when she passes them.
It may be the words “hey, beautiful” or “hey, sexy,” or being instructed to smile. It may be more intentional: standing in the way or blocking the path in hope of some interaction. It may get more aggressive, with hands reaching to inappropriate places.
The spectrum is far and wide, with one end harboring the potential for things to become more violent with physical abuse or rape.
The fact is that sexual harassment is part and parcel of daily life, particularly in public places, Jewkes believes. “It’s used to curtail a woman’s freedom.”
In the streets of London, Mumbai, Washington or Lagos, the recent outpouring of stories from women using #MeToo and its many iterations has showed the uniformity of the problem — irrespective of country and culture.
In 2017, the world has made one thing clear: Sexual harassment is everywhere.
When quantifying the problem on a global level, minimal levels of reporting and data limit what experts can provide to help prove — and solve — the problem. Based on what is available, here’s how the numbers look globally.
“There is massive male sexual entitlement … especially in south Asia,” said Jewkes, who is now based in South Africa but researched male violence in Asia and the Pacific.
“Public spaces are run by men. They perceive an ownership of all public places,” she said, adding that social norms enable men to feel this way and, in turn, harass women.
When the streets are unsafe, it provides an excuse to keep women and young girls at home or take them out of school, Jewkes added.
Data from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, reveal that almost four in 10 women have experienced sexual or physical violence from a partner in their lifetime.
Numbers are similar in neighboring Bangladesh, where 84% of women in an Actionaid survey had experienced derogatory comments or sexual advances in public. More than half said they had been harassed by people operating public transportation. And more than half of women are estimated to have experienced physical or sexual abuse by a partner, according to UN Women.
In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, “gender inequality is so marked,” Jewkes said. The problem of entitlement is firmly articulated by society, she believes.
Jewkes highlights Bangladesh as an unusual example of where women who work are more likely to be abused by their husbands than women who don’t work. Many Bangladeshi women work in garment factories, where managers and business partners can often expect women to be available to them.
With this comes tensions in marital relationships. “It’s recognized as a problem, but it’s deeply shameful,” Jewkes said, leaving husbands to then fear their wives working.
To the east of the continent, in Cambodia and Vietnam, for example, the problem continues with more than three in four women experiencing harassment and sexual remarks, according to Actionaid reports. More than 40% of women reported feeling unsafe in places where many young men gather.
Middle East and North Africa
One region where the #MeToo campaign has been somewhat quieter is the Arab world. Experts believe that the burden of harassment and abuse there is as rife as in any other region but that the voices heard are few and far between.
“There are so many reasons behind this silence,” said Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, in Lebanon. “I’ve heard trickles … (but) people are scared.”
She highlighted the stigma and shame associated with speaking out about experiences with sexual harassment or assault.
Though shame and stigma could be argued to be universal, Abirafeh says it’s particularly an issue in the Arab world, where women risk losing their jobs and family by coming forward. Some families may even kill their daughters if they are no longer virgins, she added.
“Patriarchy is still very strong here,” she said. “There’s entitlement and a feeling of ‘we’ve always done this’ and that sexual harassment is not wrong.”
One group at significant risk is migrant and domestic workers, who have no voice, said Abirafeh. “There’s a minuscule chance of justice if they report violence,” she said.
“We’re not doing very well in the region overall,” Abirafeh said. “It’s all about power and control.”
West and sub-Saharan Africa
Harassment affects millions of women across Africa, but in this region, sexual violence is more common.
More than 50% of women in Tanzania reported violence by their husbands or partners in a recent World Health Organization report, and that figure rose to 71% in Ethiopia.
“There is a great deal of sexual harassment, but it doesn’t constrain a woman’s movements in the same way” as in Asia, Jewkes said. “It’s not an honor-based culture or about the chastity of a female by family members.”
In southern Africa, violence against women is high. “There is a much higher threat of rape” compared with other regions, she said. “A lot of women are raped.”
According to the South African organization Rape Crisis, more than 53,000 rapes were reported to the South African Police Services in 2014 and ’15, translating to nearly 150 per day. Worse still, it adds, many cases go unreported. “It’s a well-recognized African problem,” Jewkes said.
In Zimbabwe, years of extreme poverty have fueled the number of girls forced into prostitution or marriage to bring money to their families, said Debbie Brennocks, co-founder of the Sandra Jones Center, a home for orphans and children in crisis. Orphans cared for by extended family are also at risk, particularly if men are unemployed and at home, she said.
“Girls in Zimbabwe are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, child marriage and prostitution due to severe poverty. They cannot fight for themselves,” Brennocks said.
“A girl takes a big risk when she reports sexual abuse. If she is living with relatives, she risks being kicked out of her home. If the abuser is the breadwinner and is jailed, the family will have no financial support and means of survival. When that is the case, the child is often beaten and treated very badly. If the girl becomes pregnant, she is often forced to have an abortion, often in terrible circumstances,” she said.
As a result, Brennocks adds, #MeToo has not had much resonance in Zimbabwe either, with most women not knowing about it and those who do unlikely to use it due to this stigma and the potential consequences of coming forward.
The US and Canada
The burden of sexual harassment and abuse in the West has been made clearer than ever before with the numerous recent accusations against men in positions of power.
According to research by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, 65% of US women have experienced some form of street harassment, 23% have been sexually harassed, and 37% don’t feel safe walking home at night.
But Jewkes adds that, compared with other regions of the world, harassment levels are less in North America, and rape is less common. Any cases that occur, for example in Canada, are more likely to be date or partner rape, she said.
According to the website Sex Assault Canada, 80% of sexual assault incidents occur in people’s homes, and just 1% to 2% of date rapes are reported to the police.
Insight into the rates of abuse faced by women is much greater in Europe due to an extensive survey conducted in 2012 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.
The results are the most comprehensive survey on women’s experiences of violence worldwide, with revelations on the 28 European member states.
Sexual and physical abuse by both partners and non-partners was reported in all member countries, with Denmark having the highest numbers when all factors were combined: at 52% of women affected.
When broken down, the data show greater likelihood of physical violence against women in Scandinavia and more abuse specifically from partners in Latvia, Scandinavia and the UK.
In London in 2012, more than 40% of women had experienced sexual harassment in the street during the previous year. A separate report by Stop Street Harassment on the UK found that 35% of women had experienced unwanted sexual touching.
This region faces the same challenges as Asia, in terms of harassment and abuse being somewhat normalized by culture and society. Many laugh the issue off, including police, leaving women unable to speak up, said Yeliz Osman, UN Women’s Safe Cities program coordinator for Mexico.
“It’s normalized by both men and women,” Osman said. Women don’t report it, passersby don’t intervene, and police don’t take it seriously, she said.
Research by ActionAid in Brazil found 86% of women surveyed had been subjected to harassment or violence in public, and worryingly, 84% reported having been sexually harassed by the police.
When it comes to Mexico, where Osman is based, she adds that levels of harassment are very high. “It’s around eight to nine women out of 10, depending on the city,” she said.
She believes Mexico also faces the issue of male entitlement, and when this is combined with poor infrastructure, overcrowded transport and women having to work late or unusual hours, the opportunities are plentiful.
Add in impunity and lack of awareness and education on the problem, and you get high rates of abuse.
In Mexico City, 96% of women surveyed by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography had experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces, and 58% had been groped.
“Laws also don’t address it,” Osman said. “There are a whole range of structural factors.”
Australia and the Pacific
Harassment and violence have not skipped the societies on the edges of the Pacific.
Despite cultural and developmental differences, Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea all have high proportions of women facing harassment as part of their day-to-day.
Australian data suggest street harassment to be the bigger issue, with 87% of women surveyed by the Australia Institute reporting at least one form of verbal or physical street harassment and 40% not feeling safe walking in their own neighborhoods at night.
In Papua New Guinea, the baseline is more violent, with 77% of women experiencing some form of sexual violence on buses or when waiting for buses. In Fiji, data are more scarce, but UN data show sexual violence from a partner affecting 64% of women.
In Papua New Guinea, “there are very high rates of non-partner rape … often in public places,” Jewkes said. She believes the poor education system and extreme poverty feed the problem. “Employment of women is very limited; they cannot move around. … There is enormous risk of being raped in forests.”
All three experts believe now is the time to ride the wave of global attention on this issue, which has otherwise been an ignored reality for women for centuries.
Osman highlighted that over the past decade, laws have been introduced in some countries to prevent and respond to harassment, but ensuring that they are implemented is another challenge, she said.
More emphasis on what works, and more investment to make it happen, is the way forward, she believes.
The overarching issue globally that needs to be changed, experts agree, is the entitlement shown and perceived by men. “This is a massive driver,” Jewkes said. “It comes down to fundamental social norms around gender relations.”
Correction: A graphic map of Arab states in this story was corrected to remove Israel and clarify the disputed status of Western Sahara, as well as Palestine not being an independent state.