I blamed myself but my focus was misplaced

“Silly me, of course I shouldn’t have been walking around in Braamfontein so late.” PONTSHO PILANE reflects on the harassment she’s had to deal with since she was a girl.

I’ve had to fight off unwanted male attention since I hit puberty. As a 13-year-old on my way home from school, a strange man told me that I make my school uniform look good.

Chores become a burden for a girl old enough to be sent to the shops on her own, because now she has to face the group of young men hanging around outside. It became one of the most daunting experiences of my teenage years. Walking past these boys, who would grow silent and stare at me as I approached, filled me with fear and anxiety. The simple act of going to the shops for my parents never became an easy task.

The normalisation of street harassment is a huge problem in our society, allowing us to brush off even more serious sexual violations.

A few months ago, my friend and I walked to the nearby McDonalds to get something to eat after an afternoon study session at campus. After we parted ways, three men approached me in a car; two of them got out and tried to pull me into it at knife point. After a grueling physical tussle, I managed to get away but only after offering to hand over my phone instead.

“Why were you walking alone in Braamfontein so late?” This was the question I was constantly bombarded with in the days after the incident.

I must admit, I subsequently blamed myself for what had happened, and asked myself the same question. Silly me, of course I shouldn’t have been walking around in Braamfontein so late. It’s so common for women to be preyed on. As a woman, I should know that and therefore I shouldn’t walk alone at night.

But the focus is misplaced. Why is it my responsibility to make sure I don’t get abducted, groped or raped? Why is there no focus on the three men who felt entitled to my body, who violated my personal space and tried to hurt me?

Why is the onus on me, to make sure that I am dressed in a way that will not make me a target? Why must I ensure that I have mapped a safe route to walk anywhere I need to go? I have been conditioned to believe that I have to protect myself against men, and that if I don’t take such precautions and do get hurt, then it is my fault. That is why questions such as “Why were you walking alone so late?” and “What were you wearing?” are asked.

It is these questions that teach us very dangerous lessons about women and men:

1. It is a woman’s responsibility to make sure that she does not get harassed, as if she is the one doing the harassing.
2. It excuses men for their actions, as beings unable to prevent themselves from staring and calling out to women as they pass.

So last week, when a total stranger decided to expose himself to me, it was just an extension of the daily harassment I have faced for over a decade. It is just a glimpse of the sexual harassment many women in South Africa face every day, regardless how of subtle or direct it may be.

Ignoring street harassment – and by extension accepting it – says that it is okay for men to do as they please and to make our communities unsafe and unwelcoming places for girls and women. Our disregard for and silence on this issue validates the violation of women, it rubber-stamps victim blaming and rape culture. It has to stop.

Have you experienced harassment in your daily life? Tell us about it.