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Women and LGBT Activists Fighting Street Harassment Hollaback! – And It's Working

Women and LGBT Activists Fighting Street Harassment Hollaback! – And It's Working
Thu, 12/12/2013 - by Paromita Pain

What do you expect in a moisturizer made by a company renowned for its use of natural products? Good skincare from ethically made merchandise, for starters. But Burt's Bees Vanilla Flame Body Butter promises more. Its tag line says: “Soak in the moisturizing seductiveness of shea butter and indulge in the scent of vanilla and rice milk. And let the catcalling commence.”

Street harassment, commonly referred to as catcalling, is the most common form of gender-based violence globally. Customer Colleen Kiphart stewed over the packaging for months before she decided to speak up. Then, in November, Kiphart partnered with the anti-street harassment organization Hollaback! to demand that Burt’s Bees apologize and immediately stop production. The campaignbrought international attention and, sure enough, Burt's Bees abandoned its packaging.

For Kiphart, joining forces with Hollaback! was an easy decision. Empowered by its volunteers, the group has become a worldwide movement dedicated to ending street harassment using mobile technology. By collecting stories and photos from women and LGBTQ people and sharing them in a safe way through mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a unique, crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment.

How it works: Users can either blog about their harassment experience and garner support from hundreds of other users facing similar issues. Or, using the latest iHollaback iPhone and Droid applications, cases of harassment can be reported to the blog immediately.

“App users in New York City have the option to submit their story directly to the council member in the district in which they were harassed through a program called councilstat,” which serves as a government database to track citizen issues, says Hollaback!'s program associate, Jae Cameron.

Dialogue Against Harassment

Hollaback! came about in 2005 when founder Emily May and a group of her friends discovered just how common street harassment was in New York City. “Catcalls, jeers and unpleasant suggestions made us feel like the streets didn’t belong to us,” says May, the organization's co-founder and executive director.

“We wanted to reach out to women, share stories and show that no one was alone in this," she adds. "At that time, reaching out to people via the internet wasn’t what it is today but we thought it was a good way to start.”

Publicized through blogs and by word of mouth, Hollaback! started receiving stories which poured in from across the United States and beyond. That’s when May realized it was an international epidemic, and she helped grow the organization in order to meet it. Hollaback! is now active in 71 cities and 24 countries, with leaders in the group speaking more than 14 different languages. Volunteers and activists are encouraged to start chapters in their cities.

Just this month, Hollaback! launched 14 sites internationally, each run by a team of local activists committed to working both on- and off-line to end street harassment in their communities. Funding from private donations and philanthropic organizations has allowed May and two other employees to draw a salary.

“With the launch of every new site, we are sending out a strong message that street harassment is a problem that we can and will collectively end,” says Hollaback!'s deputy director, Debjani Roy. The group organizes communities through advocacy, partnerships and also direct action. Volunteers and activists visit schools talking to young people about street harassment and how they can work to stop it.

Chelle Mille, who leads the Hollaback! chapter in Korea, says the organization invites everyone to join. “We need safe spaces to talk about it, so we welcome people of all genders, sexual orientations and backgrounds to share their story.”

Batting Negative Effects

Internationally, studies show that over 70% of women experience street harassment at some point during their lives. Comments from “You’d look good on me” to groping, flashing and assault are a daily global reality for women and LGBTQ individuals.

“Street harassment is rarely reported, and in some cultures often accepted as a norm, a sort of ‘price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay,” says May. "In different countries the groping and brushes take on different degrees. Their effects can be devastating.”

Long-term impacts of street harassment include depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. On ihollaback.org, victims report missing school, changing jobs or moving homes to avoid exposure. According to the Center for Disease Control, “non-contact unwanted sexual experiences” including street harassment are the most prevalent form of sexual violence for both men and women in the United States.

For many participants, posting experiences on the Hollaback! site is cathartic. Khus, a contributor to Hollaback! Mumbai posts, “I was walking with my dad and waiting to cross the street and a guy casually walks past us and knocks his elbow on my breasts. I did feel it was intentional but brushed it off just in case it was an accident but I was feeling really ashamed already when he did it so nonchalantly that I didn’t know what to do and I don’t think my dad noticed because it was so quick, but in like 10 seconds later he walks by and does it AGAIN!”

Another contributor said Hollaback! is the only place she can discuss her feelings of disgust and find understanding. Another said she was tired of her mother telling her to cover up her experiences.

And it isn’t about women only. “Anyone who is serious about preventing street harassment can join in,” says May. “We want men to be a part of the solution too.”

Follow the author Paromita Pain on the Commons or on twitter at @ParoP

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