Sexual harassment of women in public spaces persists in Cameroon.
Photo credit: Comfort Mussa
Some months ago I had to travel from Bamenda to Douala for work.
I had a lot of work to do on the set date and took the night bus to save timeand also get some sleep! That was not to be.
I arrived at the agency, found my seat inside the bus close to the window. I wanted a comfortable spot where I planned to sleep throughout the trip. A man probably in his forties got into the bus, checked his ticket number and eventually took the seat next to mine.
As usual, when our journey started, the driver switched off the lights in the bus and began playing some really loud music. I leaned back and tried to get some sleep in spite of the music. The man beside me adjusted himself on his seat, put his arm on the back of my seat and gingerly touched my neck. I politely asked him to take his hand away. He did and I shifted away from him and moved closer to the window and eventually dozed off.
About an hour later, I woke up and realized my strange neighbor was struggling to force his hands into my shirt to touch my boobs!
I felt sick. Horrified, I yelled and asked him to stop. Surprisingly enough, no passenger asked why I ordered my neighbor to stop touching me. I could not change my seat because all seats on the bus were already occupied I didn’t sleep again throughout the trip. I was awake so I could”guard my body” against uninviting intrusion. I needed to make sure that the man, who by necessity had to sit beside me for more than five hours, didn’t try his nasty moves again.
I have experienced such harassment thrice and heard countless stories of women who are harassed in buses, taxis and even motor bikes in Cameroon. It is a constant battle for some women to reach their destinations without being touched, squeezed, and grabbed. Sometimes, they are subjected to lewd comments from other passengers.
In many cities in Africa, women face harassment and violence not only at home and in their relationships, but also in public spaces. The Cameroon government has since joined forces with international organizations in trying to end all forms of violence against women. Despite this, harassment and violence against women is a daily occurrence across the country.
Hiding the problem
Public transportation across Cameroon has multiple problems and overcrowding is just one of the most annoying of them. It would be unfair to blame all men for touching women or vice versa. However women have a strong case to make concerning sexual harassment on public transportation.
Sadly, most cases are under reported.
Cordelia Ndagha , Mezam Divisional Delegate For Women’s Empowerment and Family says ‘sexual harassment on public transportation is very common .Sometimes the men who do it, try to touch the most intimate parts of the bodies of the female passengers”. The majority of women would suffer in silence. Others may feel embarrassed and will not want to ‘make a scene’. Some others keep quiet for fear of being accused of provoking the situation.
The men who harass women or sympathize with those who do so ask, “how is a man supposed to control his urge when he stands behind a girl wearing a tight pair of jeans in a congested bus or seating besides a girl with exposed enticing body parts?” I wonder if those who ask such questions will also tell a hungry boy who passes near a restaurant to break in and steal some food.
“Our bodies are never public property under any circumstance,” Gloria Steinem
Photo credit :Comfort Mussa
Problems persist when not tackled
I told the driver about my experience when the bus stopped and he just shrugged and said that is how some men behave. I complained at the bus agency and was told the same thing. Some men just like touching women in night buses, was the general reaction and little could be done to stop the harassment.
One of the key reasons for the persistent high rate of violence against women in Cameroon is that they are mostly ignored by the rest of society. I remember a situation on a bus once when a lady complained loudly that the man sitting beside her was touching her thighs . Other passengers laughed and told her to “arrange” whatever it was with her neighbor. Some other people told her that “neighbor helep neighbor” (that is, she should help a neighbor in need) .The driver did not stop or warn the man since he did not think it was any form of harassment. Men apparently always get away with a lot of bad behavior especially when this is directed against women
The Way Forward
If we are to end sexual harassment in public spaces and our public transportation network, we’ll have to start raising our voices in protest.
Ngah Nfor , a man who uses public transport says , when victims don’t complain they give the men who harass them mixed signals. He says this can explain why such harassment persists.
Victims must speak out each time anybody harasses them wherever that happens. No excuse is good enough. When we stay silent we are condoning such types of behavior.
Here are some safety tips I gathered along the way;
• If I must travel on the night bus, I try to get a seat close to the driver because there is usually some light there unlike the rest of the bus that is often pitch dark
• If I am traveling with a friend, I prefer to seat near them.
• Reading a book (when traveling by day) or wearing headphones tells anybody near me that I don’t want to engage. This sometimes is still not good enough to stop the bullies.
• Reporting the perpetrator is another good measure. Most of the time, no action is taken against the bully but silence is complicity.• I still think the fact that there are no lights inside night buses is primarily to blame for this harassment.
• There have been complaints about this and some travel agencies are introducing some changes. In December 2013, I was very happy to see that one of the travel agencies did provide some form of shady light at night. With some kind of light, most of the perpetrators some of whom are just cowards, will do nothing. They fear any form of light and exposure.
• Speaking out against harassment on public transportation vehicles is a way to ensure that the society learns that harassment is NEVER acceptable. I have even encouraged some male colleagues to discuss the subject of sexual harassment against women on their radio programs. The more we talk about and against it, the more aware our society becomes of the fact that sexual harassment against women is wrong.
* Side Note
Not all Cameroonian men harass women on public transport. I have done countless trips on night buses and sat near very decent men of all ages. The proportion of men who grab, squeeze and harass women must not be allowed to continue.
Have you ever been harassed in a bus? Please share your story.
Photo credit: www.change.org