Photo Credit: UN Women/Fatma Elzahraa Yassin

Why Do Men Harass Women on the Street? A New UN Study Offers An Explanation

Why do men harass women on the street? How prevalent is catcalling, ogling and stalking? And what do women think of this harassment?

A first-of-its kind multi-country survey on attitudes of men and women on gender equality across the Middle East and North Africa reveals distressing data on the routine harassment of women on the street.

The study, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES), was conducted by UN Women, the NGO Promundo and local partners on the ground. It surveyed men and women in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine to asses the stereotypes and cultural practices that inhibit gender equality.

One of the survey questions asked men to admit whether they have ever engaged in street harassment. A stunning 64% of men in Egypt, the country where street harassment is most prevalent, admit they have done so. On the lower end of the spectrum 33% of men in Morocco admit they have committed acts of street harassment. Still–that is one in three men. 

Results from Egypt

When male respondents were asked why they committed this particular form of violence towards women, 90% said they did it for “fun.”

“The other [than intimate partner violence] most prevalent form of gender-based violence in the region is street-based sexual harassment, mainly sexual comments, stalking/following, or staring/ogling. Between 31 per cent and 64 per cent of men said they had ever carried out such acts, while 40 per cent to 60 per cent of women said they had ever experienced it. When asked why they carried out such violence, the vast majority of men – up to 90 per cent in some countries – said they did it for fun, with two-thirds to three-quarters blaming women for dressing ‘provocatively’.”

Victim Blaming is Common — Even Among Women

The IMAGES survey also recorded responses on women’s attitudes towards street-based sexual harassment. The majority of women surveyed engaged in responses that blame the victim for receiving harassment. A full 84% percent of women respondents agree that “women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed.” 43% percent of women respondents also agree that “women who are in public places at night are asking to be harassed.”

Another key finding about street harassment:  The more educated you are, the more likely you are to harass a woman on the street or be harassed.

Higher levels of education for both men and women mean higher levels of engagement in and experience with street-based sexual harassment. Men who were more educated, men with a secondary education, are more likely to report committing sexual harassment and women with more education were more likely to experience sexual harassment. (The IMAGES survey does not speculate why this may be the case, but rather identifies this as an issue that warrants further research.)

This research into street harassment is just one aspect of this lengthy report. Other topics covered include, attitudes toward gender equality in public life, house-hold decision making, safety and security, health and well-being, attitudes on fatherhood among others. The purpose of the survey is to take a wide-angle, comparative lens to the lives of men in the MENA region. The survey attempts to reach fathers, sons, husbands, grandfathers and single men to better understand how men position themselves—their actions and attitudes—in society around gender equality. The report uses qualitative and quantitative methods to contribute to the study of men and masculinities and calls for more research on the subject.

The study ends with a set of nine recommendations for effecting change in social norms and attitudes that govern gender equality in the MENA region. The recommendations are broad, calling on governments, UN agencies, researches and civil society to take action equipped with the knowledge that the survey provides. The first recommendation, “engage key sources of social influence to change social norms that uphold inequitable masculinities”, holds the most viable options for addressing street-based sexual harassment. These options range from engaging with religious and political leaders to promote equitable versions of manhood that do not include degrading women in the streets, to engaging with media outlets to include messages of positive masculinity founded on respect.

Until then, you can be sure that the abusive street harassment women face on the streets of Cairo and Rabat will remain unrelenting.