The snap survey of 121 women undertaken this week in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town revealed that most respondents' first experience of sexual harassment occurred between the ages of 11 and 20. Those who were at school when the sexual harassment occurred said they felt "distracted at school” as a result.
Those who were harassed by a brother's friend, friend's brother or a cousin or an uncle, said it had led to a breakdown in close relationships, which made them sad or angry.
Others recorded that family relations had been strained by what had happened, with some avoiding family gatherings that included the perpetrator. More than half (55%) of those who reported having been sexually harassed before, continue to experience sexual harassment in some form or another on an ongoing basis.
Cape Town respondents reported the highest incidents of sexual harassment by strangers, be it on the street, in public transport or while out in the evening, while Durban respondents had the highest number of sexual harassment issues that had never been resolved. Nationally, the majority reported that the sexual harassment had not been resolved.
Johannesburg respondents who were under 20 when the sexual harassment happened said that while there were witnesses, most were not willing to help. These are just some of the shocking figures to come out of the random survey, which has highlighted how pervasive and destructive sexual harassment is in our society.
The snap survey was to gauge the incidence of sexual harassment in the three cities and its impact on women. The vast majority, almost 70%, were sexually harassed by someone they knew, a family member, neighbour, friend, teacher or colleague.
The most prevalent sexual harassment behaviours (in order of occurrence) were unwanted touching, verbal remarks of a sexual nature and lustful staring.
When asked how the sexual harassment incidents made them feel, the most prevalent responses were: angry, scared, embarrassed and vulnerable.
While most respondents reported seeking help from friends, siblings, parents or supervisors, a significant proportion said they had not sought help at all, suggesting that many victims keep it to themselves and don't know who to turn to.
With regard to the impact the ongoing sexual harassment had on them, most reported “it changed how I interact with a person”, suggesting wide-ranging social and behavioural impacts, and an altering of the way in which victims interact with other people in general, not just the perpetrator. Many said the harassment had changed the way they viewed all men, making them lose trust in men.
“I isolated myself from the rest of the world’’, “I was left traumatised” and “I stopped going to family functions” were some of the comments made on the impact the sexual harassment had on them.
Professor Naeemah Abrahams, acting director of the Gender and Health Research Unit of the Medical Research Council said that while the snap survey was of a small sample of women, it gave a sense of how common sexual harassment was, and how it was part of the broader issues around gender-based violence.
“Sexual harassment has been normalised in our society, whether it is text messages, comments made by a colleague, or men whistling at you.
"This behaviour is sexual harassment and it is unacceptable. People who witness or experience it first-hand, whether at school or at work, should be saying: ‘I don’t like this, it is sexual harassment.’ Call it what it is and do not accept it as part of what people do, because it isn't.”
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