Since May I have been following the hashtag #FirstHarassed, created by Mikki Kendall, who asked women to share their first experience of being sexually harassed. She further noted that harassment is often framed as an adult issue, but a number of the stories shared reveal that many women first face harassment as kids.
Having been a child myself, it’s something I know all too well. When the family friend’s teenage son tries to get you to touch him under his pants; that family friend who asks for a kiss and tries to stick his tongue in your mouth. So many stories I could share, none of them involve strangers.
And then there are the ‘comrades’, who are allies when it came to issues of water, housing and so on, but then turn on women when it came to matters of domestic violence; rape and other forms of gender-based violence.
Fast forward to when I became a working woman, which included working at drop-off centres and some time at a magistrate court. It was during that time that I met many girls who had been harassed, molested and even raped, some who didn’t even know it because no-one had taught them what abuse is or because no adult who knew did anything about it, leading victims to interpreting it as ‘normal’.
I have had cases in which young women were written off by their families for revealing that they were being abused by some or other family member. The case of the girl who was raped by her own father over a period of eight years with no adult intervening is not an anomaly, it happens in our families, schools and the many spaces children occupy.
Trying to Protect my Kids
This has in turn informed how I raise my own kids. In as much as humanly possible, I try to control who is in my kids’ environment. Even with my own friends and colleagues, there are very few men who I allow in my kids space. I have people who I strictly see outside of home, others who come over to my place only when the kids are away for the holidays and very few who I allow there when my kids are home.
I also speak to my kids ensuring I know how they spent their day and also to try create a culture in which they know they can tell me anything and we speak about ‘bad touching’ and keeping secrets with adults.
Over the years, I have also shifted this to digital space. While I do post photos of my kids online, I don’t show their faces nor do I use their names to ensure that they cannot be identified by anyone who does not know them personally. If the photos are taken in the area we stay, I cut out street names and blur anything that I think may give away the area and any public question I get asked about where I stay is answered only as South of Johannesburg.
I am also big on bodily autonomy and do not force my children to physically interact with someone, whether sitting on their lap, kisses and hugs. I am trying to ensure they know they should never feel forced to it. This can be difficult, especially where family is concerned, but to me it’s about ensuring that they learn all about consent from as young an age as possible.
Better Safe than Sorry
People often think I am ‘paranoid’, ‘over the top’, ‘crazy’ or ‘over-suspicious’ as a former colleague once called me. What they fail to realize is that no abuser is marked. They lurk among us at work; in our friendship circles and every other social space we occupy and the truth is, I would rather be wrong about someone than have my kids potentially exposed to any form of harm.
I am exposed to grown men who talk about how girls today grow up fast, sexualise them and even victim-blame, yet I am expected to trust them around my kids. I see grown men on Facebook liking ‘sexy school girls’ pages, but rather than write them off, I am expected to see it as some kind of purely online activity that has nothing to do with their ‘real’ personality and offline actions.
And it is because of this, that I have found #FirstHarassed to be such an important hashtag. It is a valuable and necessary reminder that harassment starts young and more should be done to protect children.
Instead of the shaming or the guilt-tripping that seems to follow parents when we try to keep our kids safe, it should be recognised that we are not ‘mentally unstable’ or ‘men haters’; we are merely people trying to do our best in a world in which the harassment of children is real and is very pervasive.