sexual harassment by any other name

Walking home the other night, we stopped at the corner stand to pick up some fruit our friend Léonie had saved for us (a large papaya and pineapple if you must know).  But the fruit pick-up experience was nothing compared to the pick-up lines the man at the stand was dishing out!!!

We watched, dumbfounded, as this man – a police officer no less! – was verbally and physically dishing out his most forward come-ons to our beloved corner vendor.  Graphic sexual innuendo assaulted our ears and roaming hands intruded on Leonie’s body. Fending him off, Léonie reminded him that he had a wife, that she had “no interest in little boys” and to let her take care of her customers. (Léonie is our age and a grandmother already!)  Through it all, he was entirely undisturbed by our presence and obvious distaste for his behaviour.  We didn’t even try to put on poker faces, but we stayed mute – it’s a really bad idea for us to get in trouble with a man in uniform unless we absolutely have to!

We know this is a case of “it can happen anywhere” – in fact we know it does.  But in a country where so many needs exist –reduction of poverty, facing preventable diseases and, oh, yeah… promoting equality! – we couldn’t help but find this overt display disgusting.

Part of our work as CUSO-VSO volunteers is to help bring change in incremental ways that will have a benefit on the communities we work with.  Sometimes the slow approach is infuriating.  It’s obvious that women here can’t just burn their bras and demand the respect they are due!  Not overnight for sure and the average Cameroonian woman definitely can’t afford to burn her perfectly good bras!

While we try to open our eyes, ears and minds – try to be pragmatic but not judgemental – sometimes there are things that just don’t fit with our engrained Canadian mindsets.  On the “hard to swallow, but try to understand list” are things like the statements below.  Taken from a page in “The Post” (a Cameroonian English-language newspaper), here are snippets of man-on-the-street interviews answering the question:

How can we cope with sexual harassment in our society?

Some of these quotes may shock a few people (we were shocked too!).  We share it not to criticize people here, but hoping that maybe it will inspire others to take up the work – here, anywhere, everywhere – of bringing forward greater gender equality, reducing discrimination and promoting a more inclusive global community.

“Sexual harassment can be minimized through education on decent dressing for women because indecent dressing to me is a prime factor that causes sexual harassment. With this type of dressing, you show a man some parts of your body that he is interested in and some men would definitely harass you sexually even if that was not your intention.  When these men are sexually aroused, they can go as far as using force to satisfy their sexual desires.”

“ Many youths go to church in tight-fitting trousers and open-back tops and when some pastors see them like that, they too get sexually aroused, because they are human beings.  […] In many instances, parents dress female children as young as seven years old in open-backs and “naked” clothes.  These girls are easy target for men and boys who cannot control themselves sexually.”

“I believe boys are sexually harassed as well.  When both dress almost half-naked, wear earrings and plait their hair, they are easy prey for sexual harassment.  Even decent boys, especially the very handsome ones are sexually harassed by sugar mommies.  Also most boys with these flashy cars, lots of money and those who are popular are sexually harassed by girls.  To do away with this type of sexual harassment, boys should try to dress well and sugar mommies should try to be contented with their husbands or find husbands if they are single.  Some girls should also be contented with what they have and not harass boys because of money or prestige.”

“Some girls look for any excuse to spend the night in a boy’s room.  In the course of the night, the boy may be weak and is sexually harassed by the girl.  We can reduce sexual harassment by building our morals.”

“To cope with sexual harassment in our society, we need to compose ourselves, stick to one partner, and to be serious when dealing with a woman.  Women today expose their bodies a lot; I mean they walk about half naked.  We just need to be patient and continue to pray to God to intervene and take control.”

“[…] men who harass women sexually and who have female children should know that one day their own children will have to experience sexual harassment.”

“Our husbands […] should stop looking outside the house.”

“Girls are raped or sexually harassed because of poor dressing.  We can cope if women especially young girls do not expose their bodies.”

“Both girls and boys are victims of sexual harassment in our society.  For girls, it is mostly a situation in which male teachers compel them to exchange their bodies for marks.  Boys on the other hand, are often victims of homosexuality*. Girls should be more responsible and discrete in their dressing.”

*Note: homosexuality is illegal in Cameroon.

Just a few snippets from a long article that really made us shake our heads.  While we cannot become discouraged, it is a great reminder to shake off complacency because there is much to be done.

~ by Caroline Spira on January 31, 2011.

One Response to “sexual harassment by any other name”

  1. this is when it is extremely hard to understand other peoples cultures’

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