BETTY GABRIEL WAKIA
PORT MORESBY - It was busy Friday and I was amongst the people walking through the Ori Lavi building when a stranger whispered to me, “Hey, lush you, perfume stap olsem yu iet.’’
Before I could react he had disappeared into the crowd; frustratingly because it was third time in a week this had happened to me and I could have slapped the guy with force and give him a lesson to think about a thousand times before doing it to anyone else.
This is not a new or unusual incident for any Papua New Guinean girls in public places or who use public transport in our urban areas. It’s the kind of daily challenge to our safety that occurs whenever women and girls step out of their homes.
A stupid remark like “Hey stack one, nogat makmak,” being spat out on the street by a stranger is something many women and girls experience.
It may seem like just a bit of harmless fun but street harassment is really about power and control and I know from personal experience that it can easily turn to violence.
It’s upsetting to see women and girls being harassed by name calling, unwanted comments or touching when they pass a group of strangers on the street of Boroko or around Gordon’s market.
If young girls walk to a bus stop in their shorts, men will leer and start whistling, catcalling and making demands. Taxi drivers follow them around, hooting their car horns. Lewd comments are hurled from all angles.
Sometimes women just stand there looking stunned and thinking that these men must’ve come from a cave in the middle of the New Guinea jungle. Perhaps if someone walked along in a bikini and put on a show in front of these cavemen they would just back off and walk away.
We live in a world where every day I am reminded that women are a commodity because every day we are treated like a piece of public property.
Most women in PNG experience this form of harassment and they feel unsafe in public places and take steps to avoid harassment by varying their routines, changing the way they dress, refusing eye contact or even avoiding make-up.
Others travel in groups or are always accompanied by men while some even employ their own defence mechanisms such as walking with keys between their knuckles.
Street harassment is not trivial. Everyone has the right to feel comfortable and safe in public places. It is a human rights violation and a form of assault. Men get away with amongst other men because women are undervalued and disrespected in our society.
This is not something for men to think of as fun or a joke and they should know that harassment can cause emotional and psychological harm to women and girls.
Street harassment can have major effects especially for teenage girls.
At one stage of my life, I was around 12, this kind of behaviour led to poor self-esteem, depression and a fear of going to school or the shops. It’s not a simple, one moment experience. It can be a horribly drawn out affair.
Such experiences cause students to miss school and can affect learning and academic success. It is important for men to understand and to be educated on the psychological, physical and emotional effects of street harassment.
It is good to see that the organisation UN Women is recognising the effects of street harassment by carrying out an awareness program to prevent it.
If such organisations take bold steps to make public places safer, we women can too by being good bystanders and friends to strangers by helping out if they are being harassed.
Speak up, be smart, be safe and help bring an end to street harassment.