OFF MY CHEST: It’s terrifying to live in a world where sexual violence is normal
I’ll never forget how much my hands shook as I knocked on my neighbours’ door.
“Hi,” I said, with a tremor in my voice. “He’s chasing me again.”
My neighbours didn’t need to ask any questions. They knew who I was talking about.
It was September 2009, and I was living in Guadeloupe – a butterfly shaped island in the Caribbean. You’d think that paradise would be free from sexual harassment.
The town I was living in was tiny. In Capesterre, everybody knew each other. I taught English at a local Elementary School, and would often run into students and fellow teachers as I went about my errands on afternoons and weekends.
THE MAN WOULD APPEAR AT ANY POINT
But I was never fully at ease as I walked around Capesterre, because I knew the man could appear at any point.
I didn’t know the man’s name – I didn’t want to. All I knew was that he would pop out of alleyways and from behind buildings when I least expected it, and start following me while hissing and making sexualised comments about my appearance.
My neighbours tried to intervene. They asked the man why he chased me. His ‘justification’: “she wears short dresses.”
I went to the police. “We can’t do anything until he attacks you,” they said.
WALKED AROUND IN FEAR
So I continued walking around town in fear. Fear that this man would one day catch up and grab me.
Fear that he would bust open my door in the middle of the night. He knew where I lived, after all. Fear – no, terror – that he would rape me.
I had repeated nightmares about being raped. It became part of my day-to-day. It became normalised.
The situation never escalated beyond stalking. But this was far from my first experience of sexual harassment, and definitely not my last.
When I was seven, an older boy at school told me he wanted to put his penis inside me. I didn’t quite understand what that meant, but I remember feeling scared.
At age 10, I witnessed a stranger tell my mother that he wanted to have sex with her. She was holding my hand as we walked down the street, but the man seemed unfazed by the presence of a child.
At age 12, a man in his 40s gave me a back massage without my consent.
“How are those hips doing?” he asked as he slid his hands along the sides of my young, terrified body.
REMINDED ME OF MY GRANDFATHER
At age 26, my landlord in Canada invited me in for coffee because his wife was out of town and he was lonely.
My landlord was in his 80s, so I thought nothing of it. He reminded me of my grandfather.
That is, until he served me liquor instead of coffee and pointed at my breasts.
“I want to touch them,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Can I pay you $20 (Sh2,000) for each?”
Just two weeks ago in Nairobi, I was the last person to get off the matatu on my way home. When I went to leave, the man collecting the fares blocked the door.
“You are very beautiful,” he said. “Thank you, can I get off?” I asked. He didn’t move. “But you’re very beautiful,” he repeated, his arms stretched across the exit. “I need to get off,” my voice quivered. It took me several more stern requests before he finally allowed me to leave.
Sexual harassment has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, as it has for millions of other women and men.
Living in a society that normalises lewd comments, groping, assault and rape is not only terrifying, infuriating and unacceptable – it is exhausting.