What really happens when you report sexual harassment to the relevant authorities

(By curator, Lindsey Kukunda)

Journalist Patience Akumu once wrote about her experience being sexually harassed in Owino market. When she poured a bucket of water over her attacker, she was surrounded by furious witnesses, accusing her of over-reacting.

My visit to the old taxi police post to report sexual harassment in 2015 (shortly after women’s day) left me being interrogated for ‘misbehavior’ regarding my response to my attackers. It also left me wishing I could do what Patience had done. Taken justice into my own hands.

I was at the Total petrol station opposite Shoprite, about to cross the road. I approached the boda boda and bicycle stage and from experience could tell that one of them was about to try something with me. Sure enough, I was about a half meter away from him when he stretched his arm out, hand extended in a grabbing gesture toward my arm.

Jangu baby (Come here, baby)”, he said loudly, demandingly, his fingers just about to brush my upper arm.

“Fuck you”, I snapped as I jumped away from him. (A warning, reader: I swear like a sailor and it comes as naturally to me as breathing. But see how my free use of language was to soon deem me a ‘criminal’ inside a police post).

In a trice, he and two of his colleagues proceeded to shout at me. As usual. It was cool for them to touch me and grope me and pull at me but hot damn if I insult their feelings in any way. I don’t speak Luganda but I could tell they were not saying nice things. I stood there, silent, as they shouted and shouted. And suddenly I was just tired of my society.

Tired of everyone walking by, acting like I had asked for this by reacting. Tired of nobody caring. Tired of the men knowing they can get away with touching and abusing young women to the end of their days. I decided that enough was enough. I turned around, their insults still pounding my ears, and walked to the police post a few meters away. There were three policemen seated inside, lounging on the benches.

As I told my story (and I kid you not), their expression turned from concern to amusement and outright sneering. They were smiling.

“But now you”, the first policeman said. “Who do you think started this fight?”

I started to shake inside as I realized the police men were about to turn this around on me.

“I think he started it when he tried to grab me”, I responded, trying to keep a calm tone.

“But did you have to escalate the situation?” one of them asked. “You should have just kept quiet and come and reported the men. Now it’s like there’s no case”.

“You’re telling me I’m obligated to react passively to assault before I can expect justice from the law?” I asked incredulously. “I get abused in one way or the other every day in this taxi park but I have to watch my language?”

“I’m saying that you should not have abused the man. That is how things got out of hand”. Their faces and voices were starting to blur into one-they were not interested in my reporting a sexual harassment case a stone’s throw away from their office. I became desperate. I offered myself up as a guilty party, anything to see them do something.

“Okay, let’s do  this”, I said. “How about you come with me, arrest the men and then you can also deal with me for abusing the one who tried to grab me?”

They did not budge.

“We want you to understand that what you did was wrong”, they continued, laughing now. “You tried to take the law into your own hands”.

I couldn’t believe it. I was standing in a police station, reporting a case as per proper procedure, and they were accusing me of taking the law into my own hands! They were too busy defending my attackers to arrest them. I could feel tears of rage and disappointment welling up in my eyes.

“Thank you for your time”, I whispered to them. They nodded benevolently as I turned and walked away. Back past the bicycle men who laughed at me when I passed them. Because they know that society will never hold them accountable for assaulting the decency of a woman.

So have you heard, ladies? When you are assaulted, you are to do everything possible to not annoy your attacker. You must respect their feelings. If you don’t ‘escalate’ the situation by responding ‘negatively’, only then can you go to a police post.

That we still have society telling women how they ought to behave themselves as victims, is a tragedy of massive proportions so soon after the celebration of Women’s Day.

If a man were physically assaulted, I’m 100% sure those police men would not have blamed him if he’d reacted physically, attacking in self-defense. But when you’re a woman, you have to evaluate how you were dressed, what language you used etc. You’ve got to be a ‘good woman victim’ to deserve society’s concern.

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Street harassment is a very important topic for me because it is an accepted and defended form of public violence against women. I was 15 years old when I was first touched in a taxi park. It was then I learned to share my body with the public depending on where I was. In some places you can lash back, and in others you compromise your physical safety if you do.

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