As the news reminds us almost daily with abduction stories like Jaycee Dugard’s, most Americans realize children are at some risk for abduction from strangers and, as a result, fewer parents allow their young children to go to school alone (though the figure of abductions is smaller than people may realize: 112 children are kidnapped by strangers per year). I don’t think people realize, however, how many girls and young women are followed, verbally harassed, and touched by boys and men as they wait for a school bus, walk, or ride the subway to and from school, particularly once they reach puberty.
Last fall I conducted an informal online survey about people’s experiences with street harassment and over 900 people responded. In an open-ended question where people could share a story, many females mentioned the harassment they had or do receive en route to or from school.
“When I was a freshman in high school a girlfriend and I were followed home by a car of teenage boys who shouted remarks and the occasional lewd comment. We veered off our route and onto the campus of the elementary school where we went to a former teacher’s classroom and asked her if we could stay for a while, until we felt sure those guys were gone.” – 20 -29 year old Anglo American young woman in Murfreesboro, Tennessee
“One day in 8th grade (when I was 13), I was running late. The train was crowded, but I had to get on. As I shoved myself in, a fat man suddenly came out of nowhere and wedged himself in behind me… He started rubbing his crotch against my leg and panting. I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do or say. When the train reached the next stop and a lot of people got off, I tried to get away from him. He followed me and continued rubbing his crotch against my leg … He didn’t stop until more people got off and I finally found a seat.” – 13-19 year old Asian American young woman in New York City
Of the 811 females who took my survey, 22 percent said they were first harassed by men in public when they were ages 0-12, 40 percent said ages 13-15 and 25 percent said ages 16-19.
Unfortunately, harassment of girls on the way to and from school is a global problem, from England to Italy to Brazil to Mexico to Egypt to Mauritius to India to Japan to Canada.
For example, in large cities in Japan, men groping women on the subway is a huge problem. According to a recent article in The Japan Times, last year in Tokyo alone there were 2,000 reported groping cases (and it’s a vastly underreported crime). Most of the attacks occurred during morning rush hour and almost half of the women targeted were in their 20s and more than 30 percent were teenagers. To combat this problem, there are women-only subway cars and PSAs telling men to stop groping.
Another example is in rural areas throughout African. A recent news story detailed how only an estimated 20 percent of children who enter primary school in rural Zambia complete Grade 12, in large part because of the long distances that they must travel (up to 13 miles) which is tiresome and also places them, particularly girls, at risk of assault and rape. To enable more school attendance, Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief is donating bicycles to children in Africa to help them stay safe as they travel to school.
In the U.S., to combat parents’ fear of child abductions, SafeRoutes works to enable children to more safely travel to school by foot or on bus in an effort to reduce traffic congestion, etc.
I think, however, people need to pay more attention to how boys and men are treating older girls going to and from school. My research has shown that street harassment impacts females of all ages but, the harassment of teenage girls upsets me the most because I believe they are the most vulnerable to believing this is how women are supposed to be treated and the least likely to know how to respond or protect themselves.
And it should not be girls’ responsibilities to have to protect themselves; boys and men must stop preying upon and harassing young women. I’m currently writing a book on this topic which will explore ways to accomplish this goal. In the meantime, here are suggested strategies to share with the young women in your life about dealing with harassers and, if you are a parent or in a position to mentor youth, please especially note #7 for ways to help stop harassment overall.
(cross-posted at AAUW’s blog)