Harassed on the Way to School

September 16, 2009

AAUW’s research reports Drawing the Line and Hostile Hallways show that girls and boys are subject to sexual harassment at school. Research I’ve conducted on gender-based street harassment of girls and women outside of my work at AAUW shows that girls are vulnerable to harassment on their way to and from school as well.

As the news reminds us almost daily with abduction stories like Jaycee Dugard’s, most Americans realize that children are at some risk for abduction from strangers and, as a result, fewer parents  allow their young children to go to school alone (though the number of abductions is smaller than people may realize: 112 children are kidnapped by strangers per year). I don’t think people realize, however, how many girls and young women are followed, verbally harassed, and touched by boys and men as they wait for a school bus, walk, or ride the subway to and from school, particularly once they reach puberty.

Last fall I conducted an informal online survey about people’s experiences with street harassment, and more than 900 people responded. In an open-ended question where people could share a story, many women and girls mentioned the harassment they had or do receive en route to or from school.

“When I was a freshman in high school a girlfriend and I were followed home by a car of teenage boys who shouted remarks and the occasional lewd comment. We veered off our route and onto the campus of the elementary school where we went to a former teacher’s classroom and asked her if we could stay for a while, until we felt sure those guys were gone.”

—An Anglo American woman in her 20s in Murfreesboro, Tennessee

“One day in 8th grade (when I was 13), I was running late. The train was crowded, but I had to get on. As I shoved myself in, a fat man suddenly came out of nowhere and wedged himself in behind me. … He started rubbing his crotch against my leg and panting. I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do or say. When the train reached the next stop and a lot of people got off, I tried to get away from him. He followed me and continued rubbing his crotch against my leg. … He didn’t stop until more people got off, and I finally found a seat.”

–An Asian American teenager in New York City 

Of the 811 women and girls who took my survey, 22 percent said they were first harassed by men in public when they were younger than age 12, 40 percent were between ages 13 and 15, and 25 percent were between ages 16 and 19.

Unfortunately, harassment of girls on the way to and from school is a global problem, from England to Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Mauritius, India, Japan, and Canada.

For example, in large cities in Japan, men groping women on the subway is a huge problem. According to a recent article in The Japan Times, last year in Tokyo alone there were 2,000 reported groping cases (and it’s a vastly underreported crime). Most of the attacks occurred during morning rush hour, and almost half the women targeted were in their 20s and more than 30 percent were teenagers. To combat this problem, there are women-only subway cars and PSAs telling men to stop groping.

Another example is in rural areas throughout Africa. A recent news story detailed how only about 20 percent of children who enter primary school in rural Zambia complete grade 12, in large part because of the long distances that they must travel (up to 13 miles), which is tiresome and also places them, particularly girls, at risk of assault and rape. To enable more school attendance, Chicago-based World Bicycle Relief is donating bicycles to children in Africa to help them stay safe as they travel to school.

In the United States, to combat parents’ fear of child abductions, SafeRoutes works to enable children to travel to school more safely by foot or on bus and also to reduce traffic congestion.

I think, however, that people need to pay more attention to how boys and men are treating older girls going to and from school. My research has shown that street harassment affects females of all ages, but the harassment of teenage girls upsets me the most. They are the most vulnerable to believing that this is how women are supposed to be treated and the least likely to know how to respond or protect themselves. And it should not be girls’ responsibility to have to protect themselves; boys and men must stop preying on and harassing young women. I’m currently writing a book on this topic that will explore ways to accomplish this goal. In the meantime, here are suggested strategies to share with the young women in your life about dealing with harassers. If you are a parent or in a position to mentor youth, please especially note #7 for ways to help stop harassment overall.

Holly Kearl By:   |   September 16, 2009


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  2. Great story Holly! It is so sad how we have to shelter our children, especially our daughters, with the end result being they are even more woefully unprepared for being on their own when they do go off to college.

    Does anyone know of a study that examines why men behave in this manner? What would make a group of men think that their comments about one’s physical appearance would be acceptable?

    I’ve been a victim of street harassment when younger and sexual assault at work. It’s demeaning and even emotionally strong women feel incredibly vulnerable afterwards.

    Good for you for dragging this issue into the spotlight.

  3. Avatar Sylvia says:

    How about in the halls at school. In the cafeteria? Waiting for the teacher to arrive? Verbal abuse is sort of the way of some children to other children.

    It is never right to degrade another. However, the message of the media is that is just a fact of life.

    I have heard teachers call girls “whore” for the way they dressed.

    What has happened to civility?

  4. This is so important, I totally agree. I was a girl who was sexually assaulted on my way to school, in a “safe” neighborhood. We cannot be too careful.

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