This semester in Quito I am volunteering at an organization called CEPAM, information pills which is a center the promotes the welfare of Ecuadorian women. The organization does research, phlebologist writes books, treatment and does community projects to educate people about gender violence. They also offer legal and psychological help to victims of domestic violence and other forms of abuse. One day in a staff meeting one of the women asked me what I wanted to do for a career and I answered trauma therapy. And she made a joke about the “trauma of being a woman.”
The trauma of being a woman has never been as apparent to me as it in now, living in Ecuador. There have been some times in my life that I’ve felt the trauma of just existing in a woman’s body–when I’m not affirmed as a leader at church because I’m a woman, when people don’t take me seriously because I’m just a girl, when I struggled for 12 years with horrible body image and an eating disorder partly because of society’s pressure for women to look perfect and skinny–but I’ve never felt it so acutely and so regularly as I do here in Quito.
Everywhere I go in Quito, I can expect to have men staring me down and making comments on my appearance as I walk by. This is absolutely constant and an every day occurrence. It makes it absolutely exhausting to go anywhere. Whenever I step outside of my apartment, I have to prepare myself. Anywhere I walk I have a blank expression on my face, I look straight ahead, and I do not smile or respond to anyone. I don’t like living like this. I enjoy smiling at people when they walk by and maybe saying a “Buenos días” as I pass people. But I can’t do that here because I don’t want to encourage any of the men who are staring at me and I want to try to avoid seeing the looks they give me and ignore the whistles or things they say. And it’s really hard.
For example, on a normal day the building manager who always greets me in the lobby calls me, “mi niña bonita” (my beautiful girl). Then I leave the apartment and walk to the bus where men either stare at me, very obviously, the entire time I walk by or whisper comments like, “Qué deliciosa” or “tstststs” in my ear as I walk by. Oh and let’s not forget the classic whistling. Then once on the bus I face other challenges. Besides having to be aware that at any moment someone could try to steal something from my bag (pick-pocketing is huge here), I have to navigate the uncomfortable situation of men who have absolutely no sense of personal space. One time I got so flustered by a guy who was standing pretty much on top of me that I got off at the wrong bus stop because I needed to get off the bus. And I’ve been lucky that so far I haven’t gotten groped or grabbed like several of the girls in our study abroad group. We’ve had experiences where Ecuadorian guys take pictures of us without our permission or friend us on facebook and then do not stop messaging us.
For anyone who’s reading this and thinks that I’m making too big of a deal out of this or that I should take it as a compliment that these guys are noticing me have clearly never had the experience of being victimized and objectified. I do not feel special when a guy comments on my appearance. What I do feel is objectified, as if I’m only walking by for his enjoyment and not because I actually have important things to do that day. I feel unsafe. I feel gross. I do not need the approval of random
scumbags men on the street.
The thing is, street harassment happens everywhere, I’ve just been lucky enough to have not experienced it in the other places I’ve lived. Latin America has a machismo culture in which men think that being a man means harassing women. In Ecuador I see such an ignorance surrounding this issue. My family in Quito was telling me that on the coast on Ecuador there’s a lot of this sort of cat-calling, “Not like here in Quito where that doesn’t happen.” And I sat there dumbfounded. Let’s STOP saying that street harassment doesn’t happen and let’s STOP saying that it’s a compliment to women.
Why am I sharing all of this? It’s not to make you feel sorry for me or to make you worried about me or to make you scared of ever visiting Ecuador. I’m writing about my experience to raise awareness that street harassment is very real and many women have to deal with it every day. We need to do so much to educate young boys how to treat women with respect and to educate women that they deserve so much more than cat calls. To women who are being catcalled–stay strong and please keep the conversation going. To men who harass women or think catcalling is ok, please stop and please listen and understand what we’re communicating. I’m a real person. I have value. I deserve respect and to be able to walk in peace.