Human rights Opinion

Pics of sex pests published on police websites

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Tajikistan experiences high levels of violence and harassment towards women (Image by Keira Burton | Pexels)

In Tajikistan, some efforts have been made to curb the common problem of sexual harassment. However, women are still targeted in the streets, leaving much work to be done, writes Johanna Higgs.

*CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses rape

"I’ll rape you, you #$%$@."

I was standing in the middle of a public street in the small, mountainous village of Khorog, Tajikistan. The little village was surrounded by enormous snow-capped mountains and across a small sparkling river, I could see neighbouring Afghanistan. It was 11am and the street was bustling with people, though that wasn’t a problem for three young Tajik males who were harassing me.

Fed up with the constant harassment I had experienced throughout my travels in Central Asia, indeed, in much of the rest of the world, I turned to tell these men, in less than polite terms, to leave me alone.

Despite swarms of people moving around us, the three men were unphased. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

One of them, with a lecherous smirk on his face, shouted:

"I’ll rape you, you #$%$@."

It was the middle of the day, in a street full of people and he was threatening to rape me — simply because I had dared to stand up against his harassment. What made it worse was that they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves. They were shrieking with laughter.

A familiar chill of horror, anger and humiliation spread over me.

I stood my ground and made it clear that I wasn’t going to tolerate their behaviour. Eventually – degenerate smirks never leaving their faces – the group of men moved away, shrieking with joy as they galivanted down the street. The disrespect was as blatant as it was horrific.

Despite the street being full of people, nobody said or did anything.

I went back to my hotel that morning, shaking. Having spent most of my adult life travelling around different parts of the world, this was certainly not the first time that I had been harassed in such a violent and disrespectful way. It was precisely because of this that I felt so angry.

During my one month in Tajikistan, it was no different. Many of the women I met on my travels through Afghanistan told me that sexual harassment was a frightening and daily occurrence, though they never spoke up against it out of fear of retaliation and being criticised.

Wanting to find out more, I met with lawyer Gayurova Frosatmo and psychologist Gulmamadova Dursilton a psychologist working with small non-government organisation Women for Justice (WRC) in Khorog, both of whom described a culture of intimidation and machismo. 

Dursilton told me:

"In Dushanbe, it can be really uncomfortable for women travelling on public transport."

Said Frosatmo:

"Women face sexual harassment in their workplace. Many women, they leave the job because of it. It can happen everywhere — in the street."

Frosatmo continued:

"One time when I was working for the Ministry of Justice and I needed to travel, I went to sit next to the driver and one of my colleagues said that I should sit in the back, not in the front. He was implying that because women are inferior, they should sit in the back."

In Tajikistan, such bad behaviour largely stems from patriarchal ideas that deem men superior to women. Cultural and religious ideas of male superiority entitle men to express dominance over women’s bodies, which, as a result, leads to extraordinarily high levels of violence and harassment towards women and girls.

However, sexual harassment is a problem not just limited to Tajikistan. Globally, sexual harassment, whether on the street, in public transport, or at the workplace, is a serious problem.

In 2016, for example, ActionAid conducted a survey on street harassment and found that 79% of women in cities in India had been harassed, 86% in Thailand, 89% in Brazil and 75% of women in London.

According to (United Nations) UN Women, in the Middle East and North Africa, 40-60% of women have experienced sexual harassment on the street, including sexual comments, stalking, following, staring or ogling — although this number is likely much higher.

UN Women stated that:

'Between 31 to 64% of men admitted that they had carried out such acts.'

The Women and Children Legal Research Foundation found in 2015 in Afghanistan that 93% of women said they had been harassed in public spaces. In Beijing, China, 70% of women said that they had been sexually harassed in public.

In Ecuador, a UN study found that 68% of women reported sexual harassment. In Egypt, the UN reported that 99.3% of women said they had been sexually harassed.

The numbers were shocking back then. Last year's ActionAid statistics on violence against women around the world show little has changed. 

According to World Population Review's 'Most Dangerous Countries for Women 2023':

'South Africa is the most dangerous country in the world for solo female travelers... South Africa is notorious for sexual violence. It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime.'

In Tajikistan, some efforts have been made to curb the problem of sexual harassment.

While there are currently no laws on sexual harassment, Internews reports: 

'... abusers convicted for "malicious hooliganism" are given a penalty in the amount of 350 somoni (about US$35), five days under arrest, or community service.'

Some efforts have also been made in the nation’s capital, Dushanbe, to punish men harassing women in the street.

Another article reports:

'Catcallers in Dushanbe now face the prospect of up to two weeks in gaol, community service and the humiliation of having their pictures plastered on police websites as a warning to others.'

Officials have said that naming and shaming offenders will "make others think twice" about harassing women in the street. And a special group to address women's complaints about street harassment, along with 2,700 CCTV cameras, has been set up to monitor any such bad behaviour.

In addition, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, with the support of civil society, media and civic activists, also launched a hotline at the start of 2019 that women can call to report sexual harassment or any other abuse against them. Dushanbe authorities have said that they are making these moves to promote more respectful behaviour among men in Dushanbe and to raise awareness about human rights.

Indeed, publicly acknowledging sexual harassment as inappropriate and illegal will serve to stigmatise such behaviour as well as increase victims’ confidence to report abuse to the authorities and stand up against it.

However, in Tajikistan and around the world, there is still much that needs to be done to educate men and the general public that sexual harassment of any kind, anywhere, is not acceptable.

More efforts must be made to acknowledge that sexual harassment is a crime and must always be treated as such. This must happen because, for the moment, far too many men globally feel entitled to harass and degrade women.

With continuous outrage and demands for change, we can try to shift these cultures and mindsets which perpetuate such violent behaviour and make it so that men like those men I encountered on the street no longer feel the confidence to harass and threaten women with rape in the middle of the day, anymore.

If you would like to speak to someone about sexual violence, please call the 1800 Respect hotline on 1800 737 732 or chat online. Also, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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