Philadelphia needs a gender-based community safety audit to fight street harassment

     (<a href=Sexual harassment image courtesy of Shutterstock.com) " title="shutterstock_harassment_1200x675" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Sexual harassment image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

    People often dismiss street harassment as “harmless,” “infrequent,” or “only happening in certain places.” Street harassment in Philadelphia is none of the above.

    HollabackPHILLY, Philadelphia’s anti-street harassment organization, coordinated a City Council hearing with Councilman Jim Kenney on Thursday to illustrate the need for the city to work with community groups to conduct a citywide, gender-based community safety audit to begin finding solutions for citizens who feel unsafe on Philly streets.

    In preparation, HollabackPHILLY created a survey to paint a picture of who experiences street harassment in the city, where and how it happens, how frequently people are harassed, and how it affects them. Over the past six weeks, hundreds of Philadelphians responded.

    The results are clear: According to the survey, 93% of respondents indicated they had experienced street harassment in Philadelphia in the last year, and nearly every neighborhood in Philadelphia was reported as a place of harassment.

    The survey results also show that street harassment is far from harmless, as the primary effects on those experiencing street harassment were anger, frustration, humiliation, and fear of being alone in public places.

    Realizing that the local government can and should be collaborating with community-based organizations on public safety work throughout the city, HollabackPHILLY reached out to Councilman Kenney.

    “Cities absolutely have the responsibility to address issues that are making their citizens feel unsafe and uncomfortable,” said Anna Kegler, deputy director of HollabackPHILLY. “Just because street harassment has been the status quo for so long doesn’t mean we can continue to ignore it.”

    At the hearing, HollabackPHILLY presented the survey results, and numerous citizens and community leaders testified about the scope of the problem and how it has impacted their experiences in public spaces.

    “As a woman in the city of Philadelphia, it’s extremely difficult to get from point A to point B without being scared for your life,” said Sarah MM, a member of the community.

    One community member, Jordan Gwendolyn Davis, who identifies as a “disabled, low-income woman of transgender experience,” offered this testimony:

    “[P]erhaps one of the worst instances of harassment came this June at Suburban Station. I was waiting for a train when a older man started stalking me, and the next thing I knew, in midday, on the platform, the guy rubbed his genitals against my buttocks. I have survived sexual assault before, and that and other disabilities caused me to panic. I ran onto my train and the guy continued to follow me. I screamed for him to go away, but he didn’t listen, and the other passengers seemed to blame me.”

    HollabackPHILLY’s focus at the hearing was to encourage City Council to take a proactive approach to gender-based violence prevention in Philadelphia by collaborating on a citywide gender-based community safety audit

    Councilmembers Kenyatta Johnson and Curtis Jones (chair of the Public Safety Committee) spoke strongly against street harassment and pledged to help HollabackPHILLY and other community-based organizations conduct such an audit, expand educational programs, and connect with public agencies about their responsibility to respond to and help end street harassment.

    Conducting a community safety audit from a gendered perspective is a United Nations best practice. The audit is a tool to help assess the safety of frequently used urban and suburban spaces, and it creates an open platform for women and LGBTQ folks who live, work and play in the communities being analyzed to share their experiences and ideas for reducing violence.

    In a typical audit, community members tour 6- to 10-block areas of neighborhoods, noting objective conditions that might make certain areas feel less safe — including bus stops without proper lighting, blocks without adequate streetlights, and abandoned lots filled with debris. A safety audit also specifically focuses on areas like public parks and schools, noting the conditions in which our city’s youth are expected to commute to and from school and recreational activities.

    Community members then meet with fellow neighborhood residents about factors that contribute to where and when they feel safe in public, and things that can be done to make them feel safer. This information is then analyzed, and recommendations are made based on the community’s own expressed needs.

    City Council’s support of partnerships between HollabackPHILLY other community organizations to plan and execute the audit will put Philadelphia at the cutting edge of gender-based violence prevention, joining other major international cities that have embraced this effective tool. 

    Rochelle Keyhan is the director of HollabackPhilly.

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