Street harassment: A bigger problem than you may think

Honks. Wolf whistles. Shouting. Unsolicited remarks, positive or negative, about one’s clothing or appearance from strangers. Unwanted conversations when there’s no escape route or polite way of excusing oneself. Unwanted touching and solicitations for sex.

All of the above fall under the umbrella of “street harassment” and according to a study of 811 women, one in four girls experience some form of this by the time they are twelve years old, and almost 90% by the time they are nineteen.

The thought of a twelve-year-old girl being whistled and leered at by grown men is disturbing on its own, but research is beginning to show that the really troubling threat of street harassment isn’t even the way it humiliates women and makes them fearful in public: the real threat is that this fear, and the elaborate survival-style measures many women take to avoid it, limits girls’ and women’s mobility and their access to education and employment on a wide scale.  According to, 50% of women report altering their traveling routes to avoid persistent harassment; 45% avoid being out after dark, and 40% avoid going out unaccompanied.

Street harassment costs women money. Women shell out for taxis to avoid harassers on public transportation or to avoid waiting at bus stops where they feel unsafe. They buy gym memberships because it’s safer and more peaceful than exercising outdoors. Nearly 20% have moved neighborhoods to avoid harassers in the area, and nearly 10% have switched jobs. Uncounted numbers have let daily harassment influence their decision whether to take night classes or go on business trips.

The good news is organizations like Stop Street Harassment and Hollaback are drawing attention to this issue worldwide. In 2011, they started International Anti-Street Harassment Day, which expanded into a whole week in 2012.

These organizations provide a number of suggestions for taking action to make women and girls safe from harassment in their own communities. Some are aimed at promoting awareness, with low-tech strategies such as hanging flyers around your neighborhood with the friendly reminder that harassment can be a crime; and higher-tech ones such as the Hollaback iPhone and Droid apps. They also offer in-the-moment ideas for confronting harassment, when it appears safe to do so, when it happens to you or when you see another person being victimized.

For example, Stop Street Harassment’s guide to bystander intervention points out that stepping into help somebody doesn’t necessitate braving a full-scale confrontation with their harasser:

Many of the suggestions that do not directly challenge a harasser, such as asking the woman if she wants help or asking the harasser what time it is, are excellent to use when one is not sure if it is harassment that is occurring, if they do not want to dis-empower the woman, or if they fear becoming the target of the harasser’s inappropriate behavior themselves. Something as simple as clearing one’s throat or coughing can help defuse a situation too, particularly if a harasser does not notice other people are around (such as on a dark street).

The verdict is in: public harassment limits opportunities for girls and women just as effectively as outright discrimination. So this spring and summer, the Stop Street Harassments movement suggests that women get out their smartphones or make some homemade fliers and take action

For more information about the ways street harassment affects the lives of women, and what you can do to help, visit the links below:


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