Words By Andreas Lange
“As a woman obviously, – I say ‘obviously’, because it’s so common -, I’ve faced street harassment since I was ten or eleven years old.” Kelli tells me as we gaze upon the colour fueled words scattered across the ground along Brighton seafront during the sunny midday hours of Saturday 25th of September 2021. ‘We should feel safe’, ‘you are not alone’, ‘97 is too f**ing much’, are just some of the messages that shine back at us from the ground, and I’m speaking to someone who aims to shine a light on the many traumatic experiences shared by many women and nonbinary members of society. “We’ve been collecting messages for a couple of weeks now, lots of people have put in submission on things they want to say.” 23 year old Kelli Snow says, as she finishes up one of the messages. She is currently doing a degree in Children and Youth studies at the University of Sussex, but has made this Saturday into another day of education aspirations, however, today she is the convenor of information. “It’s not been as much reach as we would like, I think people are a bit nervous to get involved with things like this.” She gets up and puts one of the chalking pieces back in the tray on the ground. “I’ve always been a passionate feminist, my mom’s brought me up that way, I’ve always been extremely political.”
Kelli explains that “We are hosting an event to raise awareness and to raise money for women in crisis as a part of the Checkback organisation”. The Chalkback organisation, according to their website statement, aims “to give people a place to share their stories of harassment, use it to raise public awareness and ultimately denormalize catcalling.” A series of Instagram accounts stretching across six continents, 49 countries and 150 cities, binding together the phrase ‘Catcalls of’ and the name of geographical locations, receive stories of experienced catcalls in the area. Each individual catcall account has their own local manager who oversees the chalking of these catcall remarks, Kelli who is managing @catcallsofusessex is one of these managers. Today, catcall accounts from around the world are chalking messages in support of women experiencing harassment and sexual violence in wars and conflict zones.
With Kelli at the frontline in Brighton, urging passers-by on the Brighton seafront to chalk messages of support and donate to the organization Women for Womenwhich“helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives.” The Charity stated earlier this year, that: “79,5 million people who have been forced into displacement, over half are women and girls.” However, the most recent report from UNHCR sees an increase from 79,5 million, in 2019, to 82,4 million in 2020. And with “At least 1 in 5 refugee or displaced women experience sexual violence…” According to this report by the UN security council in 2019.
Prior to today’s worldwide event, many catcall accounts around the world urged their followers to contribute their messages in advance of the event, should people not have the opportunity to come out and chalk themselves. Kelli tells me that her account didn’t get the largest amount of messages in advance of todays local event in Brighton. On why this is, Kelli says that “I think, lack of education and awareness around the issue, people don’t wanna speak on issues that they are not hundred percent educated on, which is part of the reason we wanna start the conversation, it’s better to say something and get it wrong, than to say nothing.”
In Britain, 2021 has shown that it’s not only women in conflict zones around the world who are in danger of violence and sexual assault, the issue goes far deeper.
A much talked about YouGov poll from March showed that 97% of women in the UK have experienced sexual harassment. When asking Kelli on her thoughts about why so many women were sexually harassed she pointed at structural issues within our society and that one of the solutions would lay in the area of Education. “Education, accessible education, I think it’s really important that from when you’re this big, [signaling her hands the shape of a human baby], you need to be aware of structural privilege and structural oppression, racism, sexism, all of that. If you learn about that from a young age, you can consistently every day make changes to stop that from happening.”
A Canadian study conducted in 2020, involving 258 participants, showed the most popular reason for catcalling was ‘to show that I like the woman’ (85.4%) followed by ‘to show my sexual interest in the woman’ (82.9%) and ‘because this is a normal way of flirting’ (73.1%).” The study also found that “men who reported having engaged in catcalling demonstrated higher levels of hostile sexism, self-ascribed masculinity, social dominance orientation, and tolerance of sexual harassment.” The latter indicating the perceived ‘normality’ of such behaviour, the study’s findings supports Kellis argument that the use of catcalling/sexual harassment is rooted in structural social problems.
Asking Kate what she thought could change this structural issues, the message was clear
“Talk to your male friends, start the conversation with your male friends, the work shouldn’t be just on women, last night at the vigil for Sabina Nessa, there was a lot of talk about the emotional labour of being a woman, just leaving, a 5min walk home, you’re physically fearing for your life you know. Men don’t have to deal with that, so we shouldn’t be the ones who have to go out and educate, we shouldn’t be the ones who have to stand up for ourselves you know, if men want to make a difference they should be standing up and they should be the ones using the energy they have to fight the fight.”
On the future of such chalk events Kelli says that,“Hopefully we can have a few more local events, raise some more awareness, this is the first time I’ve actually run something for charity so maybe we can find some more local charities, I know there are some great local charities that support women victims of domestic abuse and things like that, so hopefully we can some things to support women locally and across the world. It’s really frustrating to be a woman and to be a part of a structure that isn’t built for you, so to be able to do something, i mean, it’s not going to fix everything the chalkback campaign, but it’s gonna start a conversation.”
I see five teenagers chalking on the ground next to us, I point this out to Kelly who turns around and bursts out “That’s fantastic, the youth is gonna change the world!” Kelli might be one of emerging community engagers for women to share their stories of street harassment, whether it’s in conflict zones around the world or from the streets of our own neighborhoods, and by the looks of todays’ event and the engagement from the younger generation, Kelli is certainly not going to be the last. However, if women are going to stop experienceing sexual harassment, violence and catcalling in the future,that is another story, but it’s a story that for now is going to be shaped by people like Kelli and other campaigners for womens rights, and like Kelli says: “talk to your male friends…. …. the work shouldn’t be just on women….”