Street harassment is an all-too-common reality for women across Europe. Often trivialised or ignored, this form of abuse must be understood as being situated at one end of a deadly continuum of gender-based violence. Journalist Ana Maria Ciobanu tells the story of the Romanian athletes who mobilised to make their streets safer, part of an ongoing movement to call attention to gender-related issues at a time when the pandemic is sharpening inequalities. Where political will is severely lacking, it is up to civil society and the media to keep the issue of violence against women on the agenda and put forward solutions.

This article contains details of sexual abuse and harassment.

One Friday, Andreea Călugăru went running in a park in Bucharest. After three kilometres, she needed to take a break. As she slowed down, a cyclist approached and put his hand on her backside. Andreea saw the look in his eyes: “What are you going to do about it?” 

Andreea is a 34-year-old national triathlon champion. She is used to grueling, 15-hour-long challenges. Fuelled by rage, she chased the cyclist. Without knowing what would happen if she caught him, Andreea kept the cyclist in her sights over half the park, running as fast as 3 minutes and 40 seconds per kilometre.

The cyclist glanced back occasionally. He no longer seemed amused – now, he was trying to escape. For Andreea, it was some consolation to know that the cyclist might think of her the next time he felt like groping a stranger. Having finally lost sight of him, Andreea stopped and cried. Then she resumed her training. The anger stayed with her long after her run, and upon returning home she joined a Facebook group called “Girls Gone Running”, where she shared her story.

A dangerous reality 

Her post in the group triggered dozens of comments with similar stories. Roxana Lupu, a runner and cyclist, wrote that she had been in a similar situation: “[I felt] the same anger. What is stifling is the frustration that you really can’t do anything to them.” Roxana, who is 39 years old, founded the platform for amateur athletes, and is among the top 10 women in Romania to have finished an Ironman race.

Andreea also received messages from female athletes who prefer to train in groups. If they are alone, they choose the treadmill at the gym. Other women shared stories about men who had chased them for days in a row, forcing them to change their routes and training hours, or to always carry pepper spray.

I had been a member of this Facebook group since 2013, when I ran my first marathon. Seeing Andreea’s post, I wrote to her about not knowing what to tell my 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter when strange men shouted or whistled at me in the street, or the shop assistant who caught my left hand and held it tightly to stroke my tattoo. I wrote about the fear of going out alone when the darkness sets in, and how vulnerable I felt during my first training after the first coronavirus lockdown. Isolation and empty streets had brought with them a feeling of safety; as people returned to the parks, so too did the whistles, unwanted remarks and, sometimes, gropes.

Street harassment is still far from being seen by society as a form of gender-based violence.

We were by no means alone. In a Runner’s World poll, 84 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of harassment that made them feel at risk when running – from being groped or watched to indecent exposure or inappropriate comments and noises. In response to a freedom of information request made, the Romanian police revealed that in 2019 they had registered 2045 harassment complaints (as defined by the Penal Code) and handed out 17 non-criminal penalties for street harassment. At the end of August 2020, a runner was sexually assaulted in Bucharest Youth Park.

In Romania, 30 per cent of women say they have been affected by physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. In 2019, around 20 000 women were physically assaulted by a domestic partner. Of these women, 44 died. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the need for prevention and support services for victims of violence. In April 2020, the hotline for victims of domestic violence in Romania – 0800 500 333 – had received a record number of 308 calls in the previous five months. Romanian Police announced that in March 2020 the number of domestic violence offences had increased by 2.3 per cent compared to the previous year.

The existing measures to combat violence against women are still insufficient. In 2019 police were finally given the power to issue restraining orders on the spot. A massive 36 per cent of restraining orders were broken in 2019. Every time a woman loses her life at the hands of a current or former partner, politicians reiterate the until now unfulfilled promise to introduce electronic monitoring tags to help enforce restraining orders.

Street harassment is still far from being seen by society as a form of gender-based violence. When women complain about it, or even when they report it to the authorities, they are often met with suspicion, doubt and victim blaming.

Law as a starting block 

Andreea – and all of us who read and commented on her post in “Girls Gone Running” – wanted to know what to do in the situation where a stranger suddenly touches you intimately. The information vacuum was frustrating: can you call the police? Can you catch the harasser and detain him until they arrive? How do you assess the risks? Who should protect you? Is there a public authority that deals specifically with harassment?

Determined to make the streets safer for all women, not only sportswomen, the runners organised a new Facebook group called “Proiect legislativ Girls Gone Running” with the aim of creating a bill to regulate street harassment. Oana Solomon, a runner and law school graduate, was in charge of researching the existing legal framework for harassment in Romania. She discovered that harassment (including sexual harassment and psychological abuse in both public and private places) was included in the 2018 law on equal opportunities and treatment between women and men, an initiative led by independent Member of Parliament Oana Bîzgan. Prior to this, there had been no provision to penalise harassment in public spaces in Romania. The 2018 law states that in cases of harassment police have the power to impose fines of between 3000 and 10 000 lei (the equivalent of between 615 and 2050 euros).

The articles in the 2018 law on street harassment were Oana Bîzgan’s first legislative initiative. Bîzgan says she began with clarifying the legislation on harassment because the equal opportunities law did not outline penalties or who could apply them, and the Penal Code defined harassment as something that occurs “repeatedly”, thus excluding most street aggression. “We need to punish such deviations immediately and proportionately. Otherwise, if the aggressor sees that they can get away with it, next time they will do something even more serious. I wanted to send out the most important message: your actions will not be tolerated.”

When working on the legislative initiative, Bîzgan spoke with various women’s rights organisations and activists, including Simona Chirciu, a researcher who represents Romania for global anti-harassment movement HollaBack. Chirciu’s doctoral research on street harassment in Bucharest found that over 80 per cent of women ignore their aggressors, while only 2.9 per cent call the police. Reasons for not taking harassment complaints to the police range from a lack of trust in the authorities, exacerbated by victim blaming, to the information gap on what constitutes harassment.

According to trauma experts, there is a widespread social tendency to minimise the impacts of sexual harassment in public space because it is not necessarily perceived as abusive behavior, unlike rape or physical violence. However, street harassment can be traumatic, and for those who have already experienced sexual violence or an abusive relationship it can be a trigger that strengthens the feeling of not being safe anywhere – not at home, not in the street, and not even when you run.

When Bîzgan first spoke in Parliament about harassment, she experienced derision from her colleagues. “I was met with total ignorance, mockery and laughter in plenary, but I kept going”, the MP recalled. She believes that women’s rightful and legitimate participation in politics is yet to be fully recognised in Romania. In 2015, only 13 per cent of parliamentary seats were occupied by women, with the figure rising slightly to 19.8 per cent by 2020.

Pacing for cultural change 

While Bîzgan’s legal initiative was certainly a step forward, the women runners questioned the effectiveness of laws or sanctions when the public is unaware of them. They realised that harassers must be made aware that their actions were punishable with fines. Beyond deterrence, they wanted to open a conversation about what behaviour is and is not acceptable in public space, and to obtain unequivocal agreement that gender-based harassment should never be tolerated.

In an online discussion in which I took part along with fellow Girls Gone Running activists and around 30 other participants, questions were posed which made it clear that much work remains to be done to clarify the definition of harassment and what women can do when they experience it: “How can we convince the aggressors that honking car horns, whistling or groping is abuse, not a compliment?” “Is it helpful to tell the aggressor that what he did is wrong and that he broke the law?” “How can I convince people it is wrong when someone threatens me on the bus and they hear it but don’t intervene… or worse, they just look strangely at me because I got scared?”

While we all wanted to make change, formulating our discomfort and thinking about solutions was still difficult. It was clear, however, that legislation would not be enough to eliminate the harassment of women in public space. We would have to encourage people to start talking about these experiences, to recognise them as abuse, and to report them.

Much work remains to be done to clarify the definition of harassment and what women can do when they experience it.

Andreea Călugăru assures me that the groping incident will not stop her from training. She sees harassment as a barrier that can prevent women from reaching their maximum potential. Her triathlon training involves cycling out of town: “It’s not safe for me to go 150 kilometres alone. I can no longer accept this reality. If I ever have a daughter, I would like her to do sports. I don’t want to have to tell her, as my mother told me when I was 5 or 6 years old, that men can hurt you.” Since the incident in the park, Andreea has been wondering how to generate solidarity among other runners and cyclists. “I would like the athletics community to be aware of this problem and to fight for a safer environment for everyone.”

Sociologist Daniel Sandu explains that an ally is a person who supports a vulnerable group even if they have never been a witness or victim of discrimination. The ally believes the testimonies they hear — without seeking fault in the victims, or apologising for the aggressors — and is willing to raise the issue in public. Recent studies exploring why men are often more reluctant to vocalise support for gender equality in public than in private point to different factors, including the pressure of conformity, the bystander effect, and the feeling that it is not their place as men to speak out about “women’s issues” issues. 

Gender in the public debate 

In 2020, gender-related issues frequently entered the spotlight in Romania. First, there was the tragic case of a teenager from Mehedinți, who was raped and set on fire by her aggressor after reporting him to police. Once again, the system demonstrated its devastating inability to protect victims.

Then, summer 2020 was dominated by debates about health education in schools, which is currently optional and excludes any topic that mentions the word “sex”. Romania has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the European Union: mothers under the age of 20 represent 9.9 per cent of all births, compared to the EU average of 2.8 per cent. The socio-economic situation of mothers who are minors is mostly precarious – 40 per cent say their incomes are not even sufficient to afford basic necessities, and over 60 per cent of households with teenage mothers do not have running water. The ideological battle around sex education for adolescents draws in conservative religious groups, activists who have been fighting for 30 years for the right to information on health and contraception, parents scared that schools will destroy their children’s innocence, teachers unprepared to discuss such topics with teenagers, and politicians who pay lip service while failing to consult policy experts.

This debate gained great visibility over the summer as a draft to modify the education law was initiated by a theologian senator with a view to banning any reference to the concept of gender identity in schools and universities. The amendment to the education law, which was passed in June 2020, was eventually annulled by Romania’s Constitutional Court after it was challenged by Romania’s centre-right president, Klaus Iohannis, for violating freedom of thought and opinion. The attempt to change the law has sparked protests despite the pandemic, as well as solidarity between women’s NGOs, LGBTQI+ activists, and academics.

Beyond Romania, recent years have seen campaigns in Europe and Latin America that seek to block projects supporting women and the LGBTQI+ community, part of a wider “anti-gender” backlash. According to Oana Băluță, a political scientist and gender studies scholar, these campaigns have fuelled the rise of certain illiberal politicians. Hungary is a case in point, where far-right prime minister Viktor Orban banned gender studies in 2018 [more on gender politics in Hungary]. For Băluță, gender studies have strategic importance: “[they] have led to the development of public policies, legislation, and international conventions on gender violence and inequality.”

Civil society at the helm 

As with other movements – notably youth climate movements such as Fridays for Future – teenagers are providing new inspiration for the Romanian feminist movement. Girl Up Romania, the national branch of the United Nations Foundation’s Girl Up initiative, was created by Sofia Scarlat when she was just 15 years old. The organisation invites teenage girls to share their experiences, creates online support groups, and promotes an inclusive approach to tackling gender-based violence. Sofia has also campaigned against discrimination targeting Roma women and raised awareness of the historic slavery and genocide of the Roma ethnic minority.

In autumn 2020, a group of 10 teenagers documented street harassment through art with the “Hey, pisi!” outdoor exhibition in Bucharest, talking about their work with young people in order to raise awareness of the issue.

During the pandemic, non-profit organisations such as Identity.Education Timișoara in western Romania have ensured that LGBTQI+ cultural events (including film screenings, plays, debates, and coming-out stories) continue to run online. The organisers firmly believe in the power of art a common language, and that attaching human figures and stories to complex social phenomena is a valuable way to win allies outside the community.

In the absence of political representation to actively combat sexual harassment and gender-based violence, it is mostly up to civil society and the media to keep the issue on the public agenda […]

With a real intersectional spirit, teenagers are eager to collaborate with many different organisations. E-Romnja is a Roma feminist movement that works with young people to raise awareness of inequality and discrimination in- and outside of their communities. This kind of solidarity, which is both a response to the pandemic and to political efforts to curb rights and freedom of expression in Romania, is the anchor to which more and more activists cling. 

2021 will be a year of many challenges, stringent funding, growing poverty, and worsening gender inequality in the wake of the pandemic. However, Romanian civil society is more aware than ever of the importance of collective, inclusive action that clearly demonstrates the impacts of gender equalities and ensures that local authorities and policymakers understand what is at stake. A good example of promising action is the initiative launched in January 2021 by ALEG, a not-for-profit organisation working to combat violence against women, to invite schools and kindergartens to join a gender equality education project which aims to combat gender stereotypes from early childhood.

Following legislative elections in December 2020, Romania stepped into 2021 with a newly elected Parliament in which female representation reaches just 17 per cent, a fall of almost 3 per cent from the previous legislature. This puts the country among the poorest performers in the European Union in terms of women’s political representation. Gender equality did not feature in the electoral campaign, despite numerous studies and monitoring projects exposing the pandemic’s disproportionately negative impact on women, from domestic violence to increased care duties meaning more women leave formal employment. In the absence of political representation to actively combat sexual harassment and gender-based violence, it is mostly up to civil society and the media to keep the issue on the public agenda, hold failures to account, and pilot solutions.

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