How COVID-19 Is Changing Street Harassment in My Country
“Boi, nika size kanga aka” (Friend, this one is my size) is something most women have heard from men who loiter the streets of Lusaka. It is one of the dehumanizing phrases that reduces you to a thing, an item. You must smile and go about your day or else you will get an unwanted follower or worse, the verbal harassment might escalate to a physical unwanted interaction.
Lusaka is Zambia's capital city. With a fast-growing population, Zambian streets are full of callboys, street hawkers and bus conductors. The bus conductors cool off after their shifts, mostly in the afternoon and early evenings. As a result, women avoid going into certain areas during these times. These places are mostly around the central business district of Lusaka: overcrowded streets along Freedom way, Cairo or Chachacha Roads and bustling bus stations that are the playground of loud harassers. Sometimes, the harassment does not stay on the streets of Lusaka, it follows people to their neighbourhoods.
My cousin experienced her first physical sexual assault in Kabwata, a residential area twenty minutes away from the Lusaka central business district. Kabwata comes alive at night and has been nicknamed Hollywood by some of its residents. Lisa had gone to buy tomatoes in the early evenings by a roadside canteen and she says she felt safe because of the many people along the roadside. On her way, she found a group of men next to the tuckshop who she ignored when going in. But as she left the tuckshop, two of the men followed her, groped her and only left her alone when she started to fight them off.
Lisa is not the only woman to experience this sort of harassment in Lusaka. When I was 14 years old, I had my first street harassment incident. I went into town on my own for the first time without a family member. A friend who was just as new to the experience accompanied me. We were walking away from the bus station when we found a group of men seated outside one of the boutiques we were looking for. We were still young and not well-versed in the art of avoiding groups of men in our city. One of them spoke first, he said "Hi" in the street language common in that part of Lusaka. It was a hi that made my friend and I walk faster into the shop. When we didn’t react, he screamed, “You should learn how to wear a bra with your big Bonita!” and everyone turned to look at us in the boutique we had just walked into, they looked at our chests, and some shrugged while others leered at my friend’s chest. She had a bigger breast area than me and I felt the violation and betrayal (from the silence and smirks of the other shoppers).
We have noticed a difference in our streets in the past two months since the Coronavirus rules were put in place. COVID-19 was first imported into Zambia in March by a couple returning from a holiday in Paris. Orders were placed on public gatherings and conduct in May, two months after. For the first time, we heard the term social distancing from our leaders. Adverts started circulating in our local media more frequently as Zambian positive coronavirus cases increased. Some of these adverts went into detail on how the virus affected the human body. In these uncertain and scary times, one thing has become noticeable for Zambian women: our street harassment has decreased drastically.
Things are changing. No callboys follows us around from street to street and the comments they make are now muffled behind masks. They do not sound as threatening as they did before.
It is almost like I’m walking around a different city when I see empty streets with a few masked hawkers and callboys loitering around, it is less scary than the groups of men who seem to feed off of their group’s energy to taunt female shoppers and pedestrians around the city. Not being touched or followed around is freeing. Not all harassment has been stopped by the pandemic but in a lot of ways, girls and women do not have to walk past groups of men who have nothing better to do and decide that their main job is to pick on women minding their own business.
Who knew it would take an infectious disease for these men to start respecting women’s personal space? I do not think anyone of us could have known or much less predicted this outcome. I hope street harassment stays in the corner, in a mask and muffled forever.
Written by Fiske Nyirongo