Any woman, in any country, will most likely be able to relate to this situation:
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.
Firstly it may be the words “hey, beautiful” or “hey, sexy,” or being instructed to smile. Secondly, it may be more intentional: standing in the way or blocking the path in hope of some interaction. Next, 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.
37% of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence. – UN Women
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.
The gang rape of a young female student on a bus in New Delhi, India, in 2012 brought attention to the issue across that country. Research by international charity ActionAid in 2016 found that 44% of women surveyed in India had been groped in public.
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.
With this come 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.
37% of Arab women have experienced some form of violence. – UN Women
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.
In Egypt, a 2013 report by UN Women found that 99% of women surveyed across seven regions in the country had experienced some form of sexual harassment. A report by Harassmap — a company whose app aims to allow women to highlight unsafe regions of the capital, Cairo — found that more than 95% of women sampled in the city had been harassed.
Abirafeh added that the reasons for high levels of harassment and violence against women across the 22 Arab states “are diverse.” Some countries actively practice female genital mutilation, and others are in conflict, during which reports show women are often victims of sexual violence or rape.
Child marriage is common in some countries, such as Somalia and Yemen, according to the Population Reference Bureau, and only recently have countries such as Jordan repealed legal loopholes that enabled rapists to walk free if they married their victims.
“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.
In Nigeria, child marriage rates are more than 43%, according to UN Women, and six out of 10 children under 18 have experienced some form of physical, emotional and sexual violence, according to the National Population Commission in Nigeria.
In South Africa, just 12% of women feel safe from verbal or physical abuse in their own neighborhoods, and 80% surveyed had experienced some form of abuse in the past year, according to a 2015 ActionAid report.
“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.
“And it’s not just Hollywood. Viewing women as objects, property and having less value than men is something that all males have been taught, even by ‘well-meaning men,’ ” Ted Bunch, co-founder of the violence prevention and male socialization group A Call to Men, previously said.
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.
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.
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.”