Nine in ten girls in several of Belgium’s biggest cities have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. But these incidents are rarely reported to the police.
More than 3,000 girls were surveyed in Brussels, Antwerp and Charleroi as part of a recent Plan International study, 91% of whom said they had already been subjected to sexual harassment publically.
“This survey reminds us that the fight against sexism and harassment in the real and virtual public space is a major problem and must be a priority for the different governments,” Sarah Schlitz, the Secretary of State for Gender equality, Equal opportunity and Diversity, told The Brussels Times.
Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature that violates someone's dignity, makes them feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated or creates a hostile or offensive environment.
Of those who experienced such harassment, only 6% filed a complaint with the police, as there are many barriers stopping women from reporting such incidents.
A lack of trust in change
One barrier to reporting sexual harassment is that most female victims don’t see the police as an institution made for women by women, according to Lucas Melgaço, professor in Urban Criminology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB).
"When you look at these figures, it becomes clear that we are still a long way from having a police system where women feel represented," Melgaço said.
This was mirrored by Gitte Peeters, a young woman who speaks out against sexual harassment on social media as she has been harassed on various occasions. One particularly scarring experience came after she reported a nasty case of harassment to, significantly, a female police officer.
"I was threatened by someone who said they were going to kill me after I posted a picture on Instagram where my breasts were visible. In the comments, people were bidding money to discover my address," she told The Brussels Times about the incident she reported.
The female police officer who Peeters spoke to about the incident told her it was her fault for posting such pictures. She eventually, and begrudgingly, registered the complaint but the episode left Peeters with a feeling that she and the incident weren't being taken seriously.
Els Enhus, professor in Criminology at the VUB emphasised that a lack of confidence that police will take complaints seriously is one barrier, but that even if an incident is reported, finding the perpetrator can be very difficult, which further deters women from reporting these incidents.
"Often, they have already assumed that it’s almost impossible to find the perpetrator, so they don't report the crime," she said, adding that in turn, the police aren’t getting any signals that sexual harassment in public spaces should be taken seriously "since there are no reports."
'Boys will be boys'
It is not only the institutions that are meant to help the victims of these crimes that are male-centric, often public spaces are too, Schlitz said.
"The public space represents a common good, shared spaces for exchange and encounters, but the harassment that women sometimes experience in the public space sends a message to women that they are not welcome there," she explained.
Melgaço stressed that there are many examples showing that urban design favours men, from the public urinals that only serve men, to sidewalks that aren’t wide enough to allow women with strollers to pass comfortably.
“That’s the problem with public spaces, they are often designed by men, for men," he said.
However, Schlitz stressed that this problem goes further and is rooted in sexism, "which is systemic and has historical, economic, political and social roots, becoming deeply rooted in social behaviour and social organisation."
Melgaço explained that structural sexism results in crimes such as harassment and sexual intimidation becoming normalised.
"Generations of women have been taught to see sexual harassment as a compliment, even when they are bothered by it," he explained.
He added that by shrugging off the problem and saying “boys will be boys,” many women are made to accept these incidents and move on.
Peeters agreed that normalising incidents can prevent women from reporting, but that fear and guilt also play a big role.
"Girls are still incredibly ashamed that these things happen to them," she said, adding that the fact that they are victimised when reporting, as she was by the female police officer, strengthens this feeling.
No problem, no solution
The fact that around 94% of these incidents go unreported has resulted in the government knowing very little about the problem, according to Enhus, making it harder to take action.
But for Peeters, the real solution - especially when it comes to tackling the normalisation of the issue - is education, both by parents and teachers.
"Young kids are in the middle of their development. Their role models, parents and teachers, should make it clear that men aren’t supposed to treat women in that way," she said.
When it comes to the public space, Enhus argued that it is important to avoid calling certain spaces unsafe as this could result in stigma, which will lead to women avoiding these places, in turn making them patriarchal spaces.
"But women are starting to realise that it’s important that they are present in the city and reclaim spaces also by being there," Enhus explained.
She added that women should intervene when they see others being harassed, saying she believes this "would create some kind of solidarity between women, and highlights that it is important to not turn your head and continue with what you were doing."