In a black-and-white photograph posted in the bathroom of a popular café in Guyana’s capital city, a young woman holds up a sign that reads ‘Leave me Alone!’ The words ‘ey sexy’ (sic) ‘ah want kiss up them lips’ (sic) and ‘ey girl come sit down pan it’ (sic) are etched in chalk around her head.
Then comes the tagline — It’s Not a Compliment, It’s Street Harassment.
The poster is part of an online and offline campaign by the WITNESS project, a group of young people based mostly in and around Georgetown using art and media to raise awareness of gender-based violence and child abuse in Guyana.
The poster is part of a three-pronged campaign that is also using workshops and social media to try to start a conversation. Since they launched, they have received dozens of stories from women and even some men, WITNESS’s volunteer program director, Rosheni Takechandra, said during an in-person interview on May 28, 2016:
Basically what happened to them, how it made them feel, ways they’ve dealt with it and the results of that. Each story is unique to the person’s experience, but overall the harassment is the common thing.
I have faced down groups of touts. I stood my ground; looked them in the eye boldy and told them with enough venom to out supply a poisonous snake, not to touch and I would repeat as though I am just crazy enough.
Eventually, after some training, from the time I got to the bus park, I could hear one or two saying: ‘Don’t touch she.’
Freelance journalist Carinya Sharples, in a blog post, wrote:
I usually feign deafness and walk on. But words are harder to ignore – and my irritation levels vary according to the language, context and man.
In a video posted on the page, WITNESS project member Haresh is asked why — as a boy — he should care about the issue:
I think respect for women is vital and it starts with everyday interactions.
In the interview with Global Voices, Takechandra said that the group was initially uncertain how the project would go, especially as they were sending out young female and male volunteers to raise their voices on the issue:
I think it would be fair to say that it’s an abusive and a very aggressive culture, verbally, even physically and the newspapers attest to that when you see the level of violence in Guyana.
People would apparently often approach the group, even as they were putting up the posters:
We realized that lots of men were willing to have a conversation to justify why they should harass women. That’s what we wanted. We wanted to ignite and spark conversations.
So they began to hold workshops and focus groups to hear from men directly. Takechandra explained:
Men were saying that they didn’t know. Men were saying, ‘I thought women liked this. I thought they wanted to know how they look and about their body parts. I had no idea that women didn’t like it.’
Takechandra said so far the campaign has received more positive than negative responses, with many men saying they didn’t realize it was a problem and others promising they would stop — though not all the men they spoke with were convinced:
They say ‘I’ve been doing this since I was [little]. My father used to do it. My uncle used to do it. I can do it. Women like it. If a woman looks a certain way, she should know.’
Gender-based violence is endemic in Guyana’s culture. According to the website of Help and Shelter, Georgetown’s main safe house, between one-third and two-thirds of women in the country have been victims of domestic violence.
The shelter is one of the WITNESS project’s main institutional supporters and has a billboard painted on their building. The project also receives some financial support from the Margaret Clemons Foundation in New York.
The WITNESS campaign will be expanding its program again to include bystander training workshops — for both girls and boys — at several Georgetown schools this September. Takechandra said the group’s experiences have taught them that male harassers will often stop harassing women if another man intervenes. Eventually, they want to bring the training to every school in Guyana. Takechandra said that in each workshop, they will ask participants to take a pledge to stand up against harassment:
If it’s anyone who will change behavior and send a strong message, it’s the younger population.