Using Community Care and Accountability in Addressing Street Harassment during COVID-19

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Last year, I blogged my struggles and experiences as a first-generation immigrant growing up in India. Now with the disruption of COVID-19, we all find ourselves in new and unfamiliar territory. Yet the one constant is this, sexual harassment is still relevant.

This week marks a monumental 10th year of the International Anti-Street Harassment Week organized and hosted by our partner organization, Stop Street Harassment. For many years I have been involved in Anti-Street Harassment organizing.

Even though we are all spending our April at home amidst these stressful and uncertain times, participating in this year’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week and Sexual Assault Awareness Month should not be any different. In fact, talking about and identifying how to prevent and end street harassment, sexual and domestic violence should be urgent and bolder.

Why?

Because even during a global pandemic, street harassment, sexual harassment or any form of gender violence and oppression does not stop.

With physical distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines enforced throughout the world, one may assume that they are safer or feel more secure going for a walk, grocery run, or sitting in the park by themselves.

Fig 1: Factsheet from the 2019 Measuring #MeToo Study conducted by Stop Street Harassment, CALCASA and other partner agencies

There’s something to be said about the general public serving as a form of accountability. A person who causes harm is less likely to hurt a partner or child in public as they would if they were unobserved at home.  By staying indoors, those children and individuals in abusive relationships or homes are at a higher risk of experiencing violence. The same goes with feeling unsafe on the streets. For instance, Eliza Hatch, founder of Cheer Up Luv shared in a blog about being recently harassed by a man in a passing van and how her abuser may have gotten away with doing this because there was no one around. Or maybe it would have happened even if there were people around on the streets, like any other day.

As someone who has experienced multiple forms of street harassment in India and in the US, I see how these public spaces are still gendered and unsafe. It doesn’t matter if the streets are deserted or with people! Drawn from the 2019 study, those belonging to marginalized groups have always been at a higher risk of being harassed, catcalled, followed or assaulted and will still be vulnerable even today.

 

According to Adrienne Lawrence, an attorney, on-air legal analyst who focuses on gender equality issues and the author of Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment, sexual assault is endemic and not novel as contrary to the coronavirus. In a powerful Ms. Magazine article, she writes,

“what’s also unique about sexual violence is that survivors need not be physically impacted for the harm to take hold. The threat of victimization alone is powerful enough to force the body into survival mode, to convince the host that she [he or they] must adapt to survive.”

 

As an immersive storyteller, preventionist, and a survivor of street harassment, I have been reflecting on how we should continue to collectively prevent all forms of sexual violence, especially street harassment. How can we stay at home, indoors, or go out for a walk for even essential activities and still try to contribute to this movement to prevent and end all forms of gender violence? Is it possible to envision public and private spaces to be free of harassment and discrimination and catcalling during these physical distancing norms?

I participated in last year’s Anti-Street Harassment Week collaborative activity at the State Capitol in Sacramento, California partnered with other local agencies like CALCASA etc.

The answer is YES. Yes, we can continue talking to our children and youth, families and friends, neighbors and colleagues about sexual violence, rape myths, victim blaming and bystander intervention. Those affected by street harassment can publicly or anonymously share their encounters (if you feel safe and ready to share) or provide support and resources to those who have been harassed, and actively intervene as a bystander. More importantly, non-capitalist and survival forms of self-care (such as setting boundaries, paying bills etc.) are crucial now more than ever.

 

Community Care during and after COVID-19. According to Heather Dockray in her Mashable article,

“Self-care isn’t enough. We need community care to thrive— quality community care can happen in digital spaces, too.”


During these times of restricted access and physical distancing, providing community care and accountability requires a level of adaptation. It may be as simple as:

  • texting someone to see if they have had their medicine
  • reaching out if you need to talk to someone
  • delivering meals or groceries to someone with no contact
  • video chatting with friends who are sick
  • providing resources and referrals to someone who may be experiencing trauma and abuse.

 

There are many ways of virtually participating in the Anti-Street Harassment Week by staying safe and following physical distancing. PreventConnect and the Partnership have also proposed ways of how communities can support children, youth, and families to prevent violence and abuse at home and roles practitioners can take on during this moment of crisis.

Meghna Bhat

As an outspoken advocate against gender violence and social injustice, Meghna has 17 years of extensive work experience in interdisciplinary gender based research, prevention education, community outreach and partnerships in diverse settings. Meghna has earned her PhD in Criminology, Law, and Justice (Gender and Women’s Studies) from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Drawn from her own traumatizing experiences with gender violence and being trained in digital storytelling, she is passionate about using storytelling and film for prevention and healing. As an immersive storyteller, a proud first-generation South Asian immigrant, and prevention educator, Meghna is excited to be re(joining) CALCASA in contributing her expertise and education to advancing statewide prevention efforts in California. She enjoys brisk walks, cooking, nurturing her plants, and acrylic painting.

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