A checklist we shouldn’t need to make

Nowhere is safe for women

I wear a saree every day, everywhere. I find this most common attire for Bangali women to be culturally appropriate and modest. But when I walk outside or pass through a busy area, I still make a mental checklist:

  • Is my back showing?
  • Is my neckline too low? 
  • Can someone see my cleavage through my blouse? 
  • If I put the aanchol in a certain way, is my belly visible? 

Even in my late 30s, while walking on a busy street or through a market, I cover my chest with whatever I’m holding -- a bag, a folder -- so I am not groped. So many preparations and precautions, just to avoid a vulgar stare, a sly whistle, a passing sexual comment, or a physical touch. 

Unfortunately, I am not alone. 

All women take these precautions, no matter what they are wearing. Every day, women and girls across the world cycle through mental checklists to protect themselves from sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Regardless of our age, where we live, educational attainment, or social class, sexual harassment of women is common. 

And for young girls, it is too common, and potentially dangerous. 

According to the Bangladesh Adolescent Health and Wellbeing Survey 2019–20, one in three unmarried adolescent girls ages 15–19 experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past year. This includes someone staring at them in a vulgar way, singing suggestive songs, sharing sexual comments/jokes, or being touched, grabbed, or pinched. 

Girls are harassed regardless of their educational attainment or socio-economic status. The top five places where harassment occurs are in the streets (74%), at home (12%), at educational institutions like schools, colleges, or madrasas (11%), in neighbourhoods (12%) and in marketplaces (8%). 

Girls are, essentially, not safe anywhere.

How do we keep our girls safe? One popular view is to “get them married.” But the same survey found that one in six ever-married girls experienced sexual harassment in the past year. Not only is nowhere safe, but we are blamed for the violence -- criminal offenses like sexual assault, rape, and murder after assault/rape are often attributed to how the victim was dressed. And due to their wide prevalence, “smaller” offenses like harassment are normalized and rarely discussed. 

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Understanding the gravity of the situation, the government of Bangladesh, along with national and international development partners, are addressing this issue. The National Action Plan on Violence Against Women is one such key initiative, led by the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs. Another policy response is the National Strategy for Adolescent Health 2017–20, which puts prevention of harassment and violence against adolescents as a focus area. 

In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Bangladesh, provides primary policy direction. Article 19 of the Convention discusses laws to protect children against all forms of physical and psychological abuse and violence, along with other articles aimed at outlining what is needed for countries to adopt a universal approach towards overall well-being and development.

However, while all these initiatives and ratifications look impressive on paper, we still have a long way to go. So, what can be done? 

Alongside policy and governmental change, education needs to begin in the home. Although every household is different, many do not provide spaces for open dialogue and discussion among family members. It’s time we create pathways for parents/caretakers to talk to their daughters and sons about safe sex and what happens to bodies during adolescence. 

This could begin with resources from the government or an NGO with helpful information to guide the parents. Outside the family, we should create safe spaces at the community level for girls to share their thoughts and experiences. This can be school based where a teacher can act as a moner bondhu or “agony aunt” without being judgmental. 

The most critical intervention for many developing countries would be to begin early and educate young boys about appropriate behaviour. Boys may sexually harass to prove their masculinity and fit in culturally. But they can learn a different route. We need to remember that no boy is born a sexual predator, and we need to support their roles in promoting mutual respect and egalitarianism. 

Only then can we live in a world where girls and women don’t have to make “safety lists” every morning.

Shusmita Khan is Research Associate | Data for Impact (D4I), Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This article was produced with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the terms of the Data for Impact (D4I) associate award 7200AA18LA00008, which is implemented by the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in partnership with Palladium International, LLC; ICF Macro, Inc.; John Snow, Inc.; and Tulane University. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government. To learn more, please email Shusmita Khan at [email protected]