Will you raise your voice for our girls?

Raise your voice for girls

This is not my usual kind of blog. In truth, I’ve hesitated to write it. But much of my work is about women raising their voices and in the last two weeks I’ve been confronted with an issue on which I can no longer be silent.

Two Saturdays ago, a troupe of girls aged 13 to 16 were performing an aerial circus routine, on a public street, commissioned by the local business association to entertain the crowds on their way to the Lions vs All Blacks rugby match at Eden Park. It was their first ever installation performance – a moving work of art in a public space – and they were excited.

Throughout their 90-minute performance, these young girls were harassed by alcohol-fuelled men on their way to the match. The comments make for difficult reading, but I implore you to read them, and to encourage your teenage sons to read them too, so they may try to get a sense of what it would have been like to be those young girls, trying to perform the incredible physical feats for which they have trained for months, while drunk men leer and shout explicit, sexualised comments.

But it was the response of the business association – simply cancelling the girls follow up performance at the subsequent rugby match for “health and safety” reasons – that prompted me to write this blog. Let’s just shut those girls down shall we? Send a silent message that it’s not safe for them to be out in public, doing what they love. Show them they are the ones to be pushed aside – not the abusive men.

I accept that there’s no easy answer to this problem. It’s a cultural thing and it starts at grass roots level – in every pub and club and bar and street where a drunk or-not-so-drunk man thinks it’s macho to make a lewd comment, and his mates laugh along with him.

What woman amongst us has not been subjected to similar comments when out on a Friday night or seated on the terraces at a cricket game? How many of us have been taught to ignore it, to brush it off, or not take it seriously? How many of us have stayed silent, knowing that to speak up would only bring further abuse?

And it’s not limited to New Zealand – or rugby – either. Most of the abusers were said to be wearing British and Irish Lions’ supporter jerseys.  And the experiences of these Australian women at a recent boxing match – not to mention the election of a certain President whose behaviour towards women has been well-documented –  shows that this culture extends to other sports, cultural spheres and nations too.

Much of my work is about helping women raise their voices – to speak up, share what they believe and be who they are in business, and in life.

Yet when it comes to harassment, I’ve been silent too. I was silent the first time I had my butt pinched by a strange, much older man. I was just 10 years old, standing with my aunt at the traffic lights on Queen St. Going to the movies in the city on a Friday evening was such an exciting adventure, until it ended with me crying silently all the way home in the back seat of her borrowed Datsun.

I was silent last year in the corporate function room at Eden Park, when I had my butt slapped – hard – as I crossed the bar on the way back from the bathroom.

There are many reasons why I didn’t speak up that night. The incident took me totally by surprise – I’m  not as streetwise as I was in my single, 20-something, city-dwelling days. I wasn’t 100% sure which man had done the slapping, though I call all those laughing complicit. I knew that to speak up would make one heck of a scene, and I was alone in a sea of strange men with no witness to this act of assault. I was also a guest at a corporate function, my husband’s plus-one, and did not want to make myself the centre of attention. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

I’ve gone over the event many times and thought of what I could or should have said or done. How many other women had the same experience that night, walking the gauntlet just to go to the loo?  But then it shouldn’t be incumbent on the victim to say or do anything, should it? The sad truth is that next time I go to the rugby, I’ll go prepared – and I’ll think twice before taking my tweenage daughter.

There are many other times I’ve spoken up – the unwelcome grope at the work Christmas party;  the flasher in Auckland Domain; the man rubbing up against my friend in a bar. I’ve consoled more than one friend over cameras-up-skirts, and peeping Toms in showers and department store changing rooms.

Some may say butt slaps are small fry compared to the abuse many women face on a daily basis. But every time we minimise such occurrences – like the Lions’ supporter on TV3 who dismissed the circus troupe’s experience as an “isolated incident” – we miss an opportunity to raise our voices.

These “everyday” catcalls, stupid comments and physical assaults are not harmless. And telling a troupe of girls they are not safe while performing in public is not harmless either – it’s just one more example of the victim paying the price.

How much more empowering it might have been to call on the people of Auckland – men, women and children – to come out in solidarity for those girls, to stand witness to their performance and send a message that we will not tolerate such behaviour and we will not send our girls home.

So how do we shift this culture?

I don’t profess to have the answers, but here’s a few ideas I’ve considered over the last few days and weeks.

It starts with ordinary men and women calling out abuse when we hear it. I know this is not easy and of course you must always be mindful of your own safety. But if your mates behave that way,  tell them those comments are not cool, and if they act like that, they’re not welcome. If you can’t take on the abuser directly, consider alerting staff or authorities, supporting others who speak up against the abuse and making sure the woman in question feels safe and supported too.

It’s sporting heroes speaking out against sexual harassment. It’s sports grounds and concert halls and clubs and bars making it very clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated and perpetrators will be evicted. It’s giving women very clear guidance – printed on the back of tickets or posters on the walls if necessary – to let them know that this is an abuse-free space and what they should do if it happens.

It’s bearing witness for women. If you see something, offer your support so she need not feel that it is merely her word against the perpetrator’s.

It’s all of us, speaking up and joining the conversation. Telling the men in our lives – friends, colleagues, partners, brothers, sons – about the “everyday” acts of abuse we have experienced over the years and letting them hear the impact of these events on women they respect.

It’s letting our girls know they have a right to be who they are and that as a society, we have their backs. It’s punishing the perpetrator, not the victim. It’s letting those in authority and those who host public events know that we expect them to exhibit zero tolerance for such behaviour.

Now I want to hear your ideas. If this blog resonates  please share it and add your ideas in the comments below. It’s going to take all our minds and hearts for years to come to shift this toxic culture, but together we CAN make a difference

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