At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
Whether it's been while walking back to the car, on public transport or in a shopping centre, most women and gender-diverse people have sadly experienced some form of street harassment in public spaces.
Examples include cat-calling, leering, wolf-whistling, unwanted conversation, following someone, sexual comments, unwanted touching or groping, indecent exposure and public masturbation.
For Sydney woman Angelica Ojjinaka, her first experience of being harassed in public happened when she was just a teenager.
"I was getting off the bus [after school] and thought it would be a normal walk back home, but I felt completely uncomfortable by the advances and approaches of someone that was in a vehicle," the 24-year-old tells Refinery29 Australia.
"As I was walking, they were following me the entire way, making specific remarks about my appearance. You'd think that the school uniform is enough to protect you from some form of harassment — or at least I thought at that age that it would. But as you know, the clothing that we wear doesn't actually protect us from the harassment — it can happen at any time."
Ojjinaka recalls that in this instance a bystander noticed what was happening and stepped in to check if she was OK. However, it's not always the case that a bystander will intervene. Street harassment has become so common these days that many of us have often learnt to just tolerate this offensive behaviour or have struggled to speak up when we've seen it happen to someone else.
In response, girls and children's charity Plan International Australia has collaborated with L'Oreal Paris and the Stand Up Against Street Harassment campaign to raise awareness about the issue and to help women and bystanders feel empowered to safely stand up to street harassment when they see it.
New research commissioned by L'Oreal and conducted by market research company Ipsos has revealed almost four in five (78%) Australian women have experienced street harassment, with that number rising to 90% for those who consider themselves as part of at least two minorities — which in this survey were identified as First Nations, people of colour, LGBTQI+, people with a very low income and people with a disability.
Ojjinaka is one of Plan International Australia's six youth activists leading the free one-hour virtual training sessions available to all Australians, and says the survey results highlight the importance of an intersectional approach to addressing street harassment as diverse communities are disproportionately impacted.
"We often homogenise women's experiences as if street harassment is experienced the same way by all women," she says. "We actually need to make sure that the way that we approach strategies to reduce the problems with street harassment actually recognises those unique experiences."
As an Australian-born woman of Nigerian heritage, Ojjinaka has experienced street harassment that is racialised.
"You get certain comments related to being of African appearance and having 'unique features' and 'cool hair'. Unfortunately, people randomly touch your hair or make comments that are a bit questionable," she explains. "It's only afterwards that you think, 'Hang on, that was not OK'."
Imogen Senior is another one of the youth activists leading the training and says she's felt compelled to change her own behaviour or the hours she goes out due to the harassment she's experienced in public.
"I identify as a lesbian, and so the toll on the way I experience pride in my identity has been really quite big. Slurs have been yelled at me and people have been calling me really horrific things when I display affection in public spaces," she says. "It changed whether I can show affection in public spaces and be overtly queer in public spaces."
The 20-year-old says it's important that "people understand that when it [harassment] occurs, it wasn't their fault and it's not their responsibility to change their behaviour".
"It is of the utmost importance that we challenge the narrative that victim-blames women and gender diverse folk and tells them to modify what they say and do to stay safe," agrees model Maria Thattil, who's a L'Oreal ambassador for the campaign.
"Street harassment is never their fault. It doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, we should all be safe from street harassment."
The Stand Up campaign training looks at the 5Ds — Distract, Delegate, Document, Direct, and Delay — to help people feel more comfortable to stand up safely to street harassment.
"It's a completely valid thing to be terrified of intervening in a direct way," says Senior, "and one of the best things about this training is that it shows a lot of ways to intervene that are really quite subtle."
She says this new training program is very important because there are several reasons bystanders currently refrain from intervening when they see someone being harassed.
"It's easier just to keep looking at your phone and pretend like you don't know what's going on," she says. "Women and men have also been really well trained in this whole idea of 'just stay out of other people's business, it's not my business and someone else might step in, and maybe it's not that serious or and what do I know?'"
Elaborating on some of the 5D's that are covered in the training, Kalms explains, "One of those is distraction. Let's kind of minimise or de-escalate, and ask 'What's happening here? or 'Can we do things before it's quite a serious thing in order to bring things down?'
"There's documentation, where you can just be turning your phone on to voice record or take a photo of the person if it's safe to do so.
"We're kind of building a scenario that can help women or gender diverse people in a useful way that isn't putting people at risk."
In addition to women learning how to deal with these situations, it's also important to better educate men about the importance of intervening.
"We know that the vast majority of incidents of street harassment are perpetrated by men," anti-violence advocate Tarang Chawla says in an official statement for the campaign.
"So, as a man, I feel a responsibility to try to safely intervene when I see it. Not to be a hero, it’s not about that, but because by intervening, bystanders can help support women and communicate that we don’t tolerate street harassment."
Kalms explains it's just as important to get the message across to men and boys that harassment is not acceptable behaviour to begin with.
"We need to get to men and boys before they start sexually harassing women and girls on the street," she says. "So that is the case for early education and making sure that that's really embedded into the early parts of childhood education."
However, Kalms also believes it will take time to reform a very established culture of toxic masculinity in Australia, and therefore in the meantime, this training is a good step towards better progress.
"I always say in the work that I do around public space, that it's generations away," she says. "I know no one wants to hear that, and I know we all want radical change, but it's not happening. So these kinds of bystander training programs where we can get people who are probably already partially converted to the idea, but just need some more strategies to know how to do it properly, will make a big difference."
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.