SOUFYAAN TIMOL, MAARIYA TIMOL

Sexual harassment is characterized by any type of unwelcome sexual advance, be it verbal, non-verbal or physical, that creates an uncomfortable, intimidating, threatening or unsafe environment.

From the 13th October to the 27th October 2020, we ran a survey online concerning this issue in Mauritius. We collected over 900 responses, a majority of which were from women. Our initial focus was public spaces, but, in light of the sheer scope of this problem, we allowed responses to diverge.

There are obvious limitations to such a data gathering — that make that these statistics cannot be taken as a representation of Mauritian society — such as that:

•People more interested in the matter at hand were more likely to take the survey, creating a bias in the data.

•Only those who could read and write English, and had access to the internet, could take the survey.

We cannot completely overcome these constraints — and we do not attempt to — but we can go around them, extrapolate here and there, and make comparisons within the data itself, such as between men and women, and different age groups.

9 in 10 women have faced sexual harassment at least once in their lives.

1 in 3 men reported the same. Restricting the time frame to the last five years, those numbers get sharper.

At much as 28% of female respondents reported having faced sexual harassment over 10 times during that period of time. On average, women were 8 times more likely to experience sexual harassment than men.

3 out of 4 victims reported having faced verbal harassment and/or non-verbal harassment, while around half reported having dealt with physical sexual harassment, and a quarter cybersexual harassment.

The median age for a first encounter with sexual harassment was 14. The highest frequency was between 11 and 17 years old.

While the streets (78.8%) and public transports (61.6%) were the spaces where people were more prone to face sexual harassment, respondents detailed an array of locations where they experienced harassment. Spaces which came up repeatedly were: home and relatives’ homes, tuition, beach, night club, and online.

3.9% of victims reported the incident(s) to the police.

55% spoke to someone or reported the incident(s), while 42% did not.

Of those who did voice out, friends were the ones most spoken to (76%), then to the mother (45%), and to the father (19%). Only 6.4% out of the 55% [3.9% overall] reported the incident to the police.

60% of victims suffered a lasting impact

Among those, 56%, experienced feelings of depression, 40% changed their regular routes, and 9% had to seek professional help. About a third reported avoiding public transportations.

We received hundreds of written responses about the effects that the incidents had had on victims. We cannot properly summarize all these experience into a paragraph or a few, but common feelings were:

-“Scared to go out alone”

-“Difficult to trust people”

-“Feeling insecure, feeling paranoid”

-“Feeling ashamed or dirty”

-“Cannot build a stable relationship”

-“Fragile mental health”

A respondent wrote:

-“I have a visceral fear of men. I am terrified when I walk alone in the streets, I feel stressed, anxious. I have become less spontaneous, less jovial, because I don’t want to encourage any behaviour, because I know that it’s my words against theirs. I am disappointed in men, especially those who don’t believe us.”

7 in 10 respondents agreed that sexual harassment is a taboo

Many asserted that sex itself is a taboo in Mauritius. That this prevents any real discussion about sexual harassment.

-“People give too much importance to « dimounn ki pou dir » and « purity », « virginity ». Nobody wants to talk about sex, periods, because it’s shameful. Dimounn ki pou dir if their daughter was sexually harassed? Who will want to marry her? She is already « dirty ». But it’s the same for the boys — they are not taught about sex in a safe environment (home), and instead learn it from horrible places (pornographic sites, etc) and think that’s what sex should be like — they should dominate the woman, they should force themselves on them etc. And since no one at home wants to talk about it, they don’t know what consent is, where the boundaries are.”

-“People are scared to talk about it because this might affect their social status and how other people view them.”

94% of respondents considered sexual harassment to be a major issue in our society.

That number was higher among women (95%) and lower among men (82%).

Among those, a majority (74%) said that the cause was that there is no punishment for such actions. Close behind were that it was due to a lack of sexual education (65%) and that people do not find these actions to be reprehensible (65%).

To expand on this last point, it is worth noting that, in the question: Have you ever witnessed any incident(s) of sexual harassment?, 20% answered that they were unsure if what they had seen or heard qualified as such. This may indicate the need for better awareness and education concerning the subject.

Fighting sexual harassment

As many as 700 respondents shared their thoughts on how to tackle the problem — sexual education was the solution most often brought up — though scores of other ideas were proposed.

-“Sexual Harassment, like many other social ills is the product of a lack of education. While urgent measure must be taken to stop sexual harassment (like law reinforcements), it will only be like looking at the tip of the iceberg. The solution, in my opinion as least, is to encourage a reform of the educational system as a whole, including ‘tactful’ sex education. And I mean to stress on the word tactful. The pedagogy implement will majorly impact the success or failure of this process.”

-“Sex education shouldn’t just be about putting a picture of a uterus on the board and labelling it. It should comprise sexual harassment, consent, and safe sex as well.”

-“Continuous sensitisation. Marches, protests for more severe laws and providing support and a platform for victims.”

Way forward

There was an obvious impression of ‘being alone in the world’ in the responses, due principally to the taboo surrounding the subject. A feeling of powerlessness, of helplessness.

At the same time, hope for a better future was a prevailing theme. Beyond the pain, anger, and resentment, participants — both male and female — expressed a headstrong desire to challenge this issue. To do something. Many plainly wrote that they would be there to fight this fight, that they would be part of the movement forward.

Our public spaces are unsafe, yes, but there is an underlying social issue to address. Change will not come spontaneously. Simply talking about it, writing about it does close to nothing. Creating awareness is a part of the effort, but only a part. Action must be driven by our institutions. Schools, religious authorities, and the government — through its municipalities and ministries responsible for education, youth and gender equality — have to take a firm stand and contribute.

The potentials solutions are many — better education, awareness campaigns, support groups — but will stay potential solutions until the institutions in power act.

Only when enough pressure is put onto them will they react, will they adapt to bring the progress demanded.