Respect on the streets

Friday, April 11th, Koru-Kenya hosted a dialogue on street harassment.

The original event was intended to be a rally, held on the 4th in alignment with International Anti-Street Harassment Week. Due to local unrest in the form of protests during that week, we changed both the venue and the form of the event to an indoor dialogue. Given this fluid beginning, perhaps we should have anticipated that this event would continue this pattern of emergence, surprising even Koru staff in the direction it took.

The order of the event was supposed to go something like this: Introduction  Street Harassment Defined  Myths and Facts  Global Statistics  What Can We Do About Harassment 

Although our dynamic presenters touched on all of these topics, the event became focused on the definition of street harassment and myths and facts, as these topics generated so much discussion and debate.

We had about 30 people in attendance, many of them street living children and youth and many of them male. Because of this, the definition of street harassment took on a much broader scope and generated unexpected debate. Although we had ladies in the audience talking about their experiences with more “traditional” forms of street harassment, being followed, whistled at, and otherwise hassled by men who are treating them like sex objects. The street boys talked about their own experiences with street harassment—how they are sometimes approached by men and women for sex, and about how they are chased away from public spaces and called names just for being homeless. Then, we even had a man (not from the street) share that another man had groped him in a matatu (bus). This led to the important point that street harassment is not just about men harassing women. It’s not even just about people sexualizing each other. It’s about a lack of respect.

From this, one person made the claim that people probably shouldn’t talk with strangers in public at all. This generated heated debate, as the street children argued that they depend on hawking goods to strangers (and begging) for a living which requires some interaction. In response, we handed out fliers detailing what should and shouldn't be said to people in public places. We also talked about how body language and intent transformed interaction into harassment. If someone wants to objectify you or otherwise verbally hurt or disrespect you, that is harassment. But, we also talked about how the victim defines harassment. If he or she is tired of being talked to in public, as so many women are, tired of being the center of attention, even well-meaning passer-bys can make that person feel harassed.

The overwhelming message generated from these discussions was the idea that we have to be careful with each other.

We need to respect each other and imagine what life is like on both sides of the coin. That street child shouting at you to buy something is a person. That young man greeting a woman on the street with a smile may not mean the smile to be a leer. But, women and men and children, everyone, has a right to for their presence and passage on the street to go unremarked upon, to be in public places without other people feeling free to comment on their person or their body or any other aspect of themselves.

The discussion concluded with presentations from the Mombasa Child Protection Officer and a representative from Wema Centre (who spoke about the International Day of the Street Child, which was the day following our event). These presentations reinforced the value and rights of street children, but also their responsibility to contribute to more respectful streets, as their presence is such a fundamental part of this public place.

Finally, we held a MotoMoto performance as a way of ending the event on a fun note, and two of our brightest students displayed their talents to a very appreciative crowd.

We still haven’t completely answered the question of how should we interact with each other in public places. There is still debate and questioning that must happen. But at least, for a little while, we had a forum for that discussion, which is so very rare in Kenya.

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