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Girls are saying “stop” to street harassment

Street harassment of young women and girls is a widespread safety issue in Kyrgyzstan that has been ignored. In Osh, Saferworld's partner New Rhythm has been working with local communities and authorities to launch a campaign against street harassment and create a safer environment for women and girls.

An endemic issue

In Osh, Kyrgyzstan, the street harassment of women and girls is a widespread and under-recognised issue in daily life, with cat-calling, whistling, groping, and verbal abuse directed at women as they attempt to go shopping, attend school, and work. Despite the impact this has on women and girls, street harassment is rarely viewed as a problem in society, and is often presented as flattering for the women experiencing it. Very often when girls complain about incidents of harassment they are told to “take it as compliment”. General community attitudes also often place the blame with women and girls, in the way they dress.

Social attitudes mean girls are also less likely to report incidents to the police who often share the same views as wider society and there is currently no separate law on sexual harassment, which falls under the article on hooliganism in Criminal Law. The only way girls have been able to respond is to try to minimise harassment by dressing highly conservatively. If you go to the police they will suggest that you brought it on yourself,” said one woman involved in the campaign with New Rhythm. . One woman from Osh said, “I experience it a lot. I think people stopped paying attention to street harassment – they see it as a normal occurrence. Women just close their eyes and do not pay attention.

Campaigning for a safer environment.

In 2015, having identified street harassment as a major safety issue, local civil society organisation New Rhythm initiated a “Say Stop to Street Harassment” campaign supported by Saferworld as part of our community policing work. The campaign was driven by young volunteers who met regularly to discuss ideas and initiatives to raise awareness of the issue and challenge perceptions. The campaign took a number of approaches including information distribution, workshops, and raising awareness through the media.

Flyers were distributed throughout communities with information on definitions of harassment, existing laws around harassment, how to file a police report, and how to campaign on the issue of street harassment. A series of workshops was organised for youth within the community on a variety of topics including self-defence for girls, expressing their concerns through writing, video production, and on the law around street harassment. Young men and women worked together to film short videos broadcast on local television and to produce comics which were printed after the workshop, bringing them together in a safe space to discuss the issue. Due to conservative traditions boys and girls have few options to interact with each other openly therefore the opportunity to work together enabled them to communicate with each and understand what the other gender may be feeling, both around harassment, but also more generally.
To raise as much awareness as possible the campaign used local radio stations that are popular among youth to highlight the importance of recognising street harassment and its impact on girls.

Those running the campaign actively involved other actors including members of the police force and specialists on gender from UN Women who participated as experts during activities. The police gave workshop attendees self-defence tips and information on where to go and who to seek advice from if they had been harassed. During the session the police also briefed the participants about the fact that unfortunately due to police culture there may be times when the police might ignore a report about street harassment; and recognised that unfortunately the issue of street harassment as a serious crime has not been embedded within police culture. All law enforcement officials still need to receive training on how to respond appropriately – with empathy and respect – to people who report a case of harassment, and guidance on how they can diffuse harassment situations without necessarily arresting anyone, for example by intervening and telling the harasser to stop.

Over the course of the workshops and round table discussions, young participants improved their understanding of street harassment and what is not acceptable, and related legislation. School campaigns, social media, word of mouth, and notices ion public transport are a few ways of relaying these messages, so participants at the training were also taught how to make captivating stories and videos about the issue and promote them across the city, and on social media.

New Rhythm reached out mostly to youth between the ages of 16 and 25 could influence their peers. To reach a wider audience of those who weren’t able to attend the training or those who may not have been comfortable attending  New Rhythm also released a three-minute video to spread awareness amoung both victims and perpetrators and handbook for girls explaining self-defence exercises. The campaign itself – and girls playing a leading role within it – was unusual, especially in the conservative south of the country, but the experience was well received. According to Ainagul Amatbekova, an initiator of the campaign, “the initiative was much needed… girls and women feel more confident ...they know that they do not have to police themselves but to protect their right to be themselves.”  

This was the first time an issue like street harassment has been highlighted and the campaign was innovative, ambitious and challenging. However it successfully drew attention to a sensitive issue affecting women and girls, and for the first time involved them, together with young men and boys in contributing to the solution in Osh.

Zamira Isakova is Project Coordinator for Saferworld’s Central Asia Programme.             

Find out more about our work in Central Asia.

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Despite the impact this has on women and girls, street harassment is rarely viewed as a problem in society, and is often presented as flattering for the women experiencing it.

Zamira Isakova