Photograph — Financial Times

In Kampala, Uganda, market women are tackling sexual harassment head on via a system set up by the Institute for Social Transformation (IST). The organization has established a protocol whereby men accused and reported for sexually harassing women are fined, suspended, or expelled depending on the gravity of the case. Perpetrators can be suspended for a week, a month, or fined to the tune of 100,000 Ugandan shillings reports Alice McCool for The Guardian.  

The market is divided into zones, then departments, with a women’s representative for each department. These representatives are the first port of call for sexual harassment complaints. Next is the zone leader, and above that the market’s disciplinary committee. Nora Baguma, a trader and women’s representative at Nakawa market in Kampala says the system has been effective so far. “It makes them stop. They fear us,” she said. Repeat offenders are expelled.

Besides highlighting the impact of the IST in increasing awareness about sexual harassment among market women in Kampala, this initiative highlights the significance of addressing the issue of sexual harassment in public spaces and the informal sector.

Sexual harassment is a global phenomenon that occurs in private and public spaces, and in formal and informal sectors. But while there’s been increased visibility over the issue in recent times, owing to the #MeToo movement, harassment in informal sectors and public spaces do not get enough attention. Perhaps due to the fact that the informal sector is unstructured and difficult to regulate.

A recently adopted international treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work provides protection for women in all kinds of spaces and sectors, and while it is yet to be ratified by almost every country, it at least gives a foundation on which laws against sexual harassment in public spaces and informal sectors can and should be created. 

However, women around the world are already actively challenging impunity and demanding respect within their workspaces and in public spaces. Last December, young women in Lagos, Nigeria went on a market march in one of the city’s biggest markets to protest being touched, catcalled and solicited by male vendors, a culture that is deeply ingrained not only in markets across the country but other public spaces like bus parks and street corners. 

Like the IST in Uganda, market march has become an organization in itself, one that raises awareness and educates male vendors on the issue of sexual harassment in markets across the country. The organization is also working to hold the government accountable to establish systems to protect women in markets and enforce already existing laws in that regard.

In 2014, before the global #MeToo movement, Kenyan women took to the streets of Nairobi to protest the pervasive assault of women in public spaces with the #MyDressMyChoice campaign after a woman was harassed and stripped at a bus stop for wearing a miniskirt. The protest caught the attention of Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto, who then ordered the arrest of the perpetrators. Three years ago, South Africa’s #EndRapeCulture campaign compelled universities to establish task teams to tackle sexual offences on campuses.

Oversees in Bangladesh, Guatemala, Quito, and the Philippines, the UN Women is tackling sexual harassment across spaces and sectors through its global initiative – Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces

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