Hollaback! At Street Harassment

It has happened to all of us at one point or another. We are casually walking down the street, and then we hear it: “hey sexy!”; “I like your ass!”; “Come here baby”, etc. Most of us shrug it off and continue walking because; hey it happens all the time right?  But here is where the problem lays: it shouldn’t happen all the time, and yet it does. Street harassment has become a cultural norm, especially in a busy and bustling city like Ottawa. The majority of us have learned to shrug off the catcalls and continue on with our day. According to Julie Lalonde, founder of Hollaback! Ottawa, a chapter of an international organization that fights street harassment, it is a symptom of a much larger societal problem.

For those who are new to Ottawa (especially for those coming from small cities or towns), getting catcalled and harassed at night on your walk home is not the most pleasant experience. It usually leaves you feeling angered and frustrated. However, you do nothing regarding it. Nobody does. From a survey conducted by Hollaback! Ottawa, 97% of 350 respondents said they have experienced street harassment; however, 90% of the respondents never reported the incident. But why even report it? It will happen again. What’s wrong with a little harmless catcalling in any case? According to Julie, it’s not about that; it’s about putting people in their place. Who are you to decide to yell at me? Why am I the victim of your calls? This is why street harassment is a symptom of a larger societal problem. Women are still fighting for equal pay, equal rights and equal voices around the world. Women now have to fight for equal respect on the street. 

What is all the more interesting about Hollaback’s survey is that out of the 97% of respondents who have experienced street harassment in the past, 44% of these respondents have experienced harassment on public transit. In lieu of this discovery, Hollaback! Ottawa approached OC Transpo in February. However, from the get-go, OC Transpo was not very receptive of the demands for more safety on the transit way and on buses. While much debate and heated discussion occurred between Hollaback! Ottawa and OC Transpo since February, OC Transpo will be adopting new rules and regulations regarding safety on public transit.

First, many major transit stops with multiple bus routes will be amalgamated into one or two bus stops after the hours of 7pm, instead of 9pm as it currently stands. Second, OC Transpo has committed to advertising the services it provides, for example the night stop services, and the “Don’t be that guy” campaign. Hopefully, this increase in advertising will contribute to general public education regarding this pressing issue - especially considering that an Ottawa woman was just recently robbed and sexually assaulted at Blair Station in the wee-hours of the morning (for more information regarding this story see: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/touch/story.html?id=8788787). OC Transpo has also conceived a ten-point plan regarding street harassment on public transit; however, according to Julie, they have not been transparent with the plan. After a committee meeting last week, they have pledged to be more transparent.

While, as students, we may not be able to do anything to “protect ourselves”, we can certainly discuss as a community what we can do to stop street harassment from occurring. We need to be explicit in saying that street harassment in not OK, and we need to be courageous and step in and say something when we see it happen to another person. We must share our stories – whether it be on social media, on Hollaback’s website, or with our friends – and spread this important message.

As Julie accurately put it, we need to re-create the culture in which we currently live; it’s up to everyone to do something. Now that students are flocking into Ottawa from every end of the country, we can start up a discussion and shift the societal norm. Indeed, according to Julie, “we’re celebrating all of our victories, but we also need to still push. There needs to be a latitudinal shift.”

For more information regarding Hollaback! Ottawa, please visit their website. If you don’t feel comfortable walking home at night, Foot Patrol is a wonderful uOttawa service that not only accompanies you on your walk home, but also your bus home. While it is important to speak out and combat the society we perpetuate, it is all the more important to stay safe.


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