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Peace Corps realities: sexual harassment

As being somebody who automatically stands out in a Zulu community and 100 percent Zulu shopping town, it’s inevitable that I’ll deal with sexual harassment from time to time. I expected it. I can look absolutely disgusting, not have bathed in four days, and not care about my appearance, but still get hit on or proposed to. My American friends and I have come to conclusion we think men hit on us because they see it as a challenge, something to conquer – they just want to be able to say they had a white woman before.

Here’s a typical scenario:

“Can I have your number?”
“Please? Why not girl?”
“Because I said NO.”
“Oh, c’mon girl…”
“I said NO I have a boyfriend in America.”
“Ah, but America is far. He won’t know.”

Here’s my most humorous scenario so far:

“I have to confess something to you.”
“I’m in love with you.”
“You don’t even know me. You’ve never talked to me before.”
“Yes, but it is fate. I love you.”
“No, no you don’t. You cannot love someone without knowing them.” “Can I have your number?”
“No, I have an American boyfriend.”
“He won’t know.”

Ok – who would honestly believe that if someone said that to them?

The way men keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing even when you are being rude, giving them a death stare and being short with them, is unreal. They really think that if they keep nudging you, you’ll give in because they are that powerful. They think we’re vulnerable enough that we’ll give in because we need them. Some South African girls may be, however, because most young women my age rely on boyfriends.

Traditionally, South Africa is a patriarchal culture. Boys know from an early age that they can get away with a lot more than girls (more to come when I write about gender inequality). They learn from their older brothers and family members how to be a “man” growing up. Women are taught that men are supposed to be the suppliers for the home. That’s slowly changing with the younger and urban generations, but young men still grow up with a sense of entitlement. An estimate of 60,000 rape cases are reported to the police each year in South Africa, although experts believe the actual rape rate is x10 that at 600,000, according to a recent BBC article. Clearly this has to have some root in a power struggle between the genders.

Being in South Africa for eight months has taught me a lot about myself and already has changed me for the better. One positive I’ve gained from being here is learning how to have more self-respect when dealing with the opposite sex.

I view men differently now; I always think a man wants something and I rarely make eye-contact or acknowledge a man’s presence. When I’m in town, I will not respond to any cat calls, whistles or look anyone in the eye unless I hear, “Mpho!” (my African name).

Now that I’ve seen the way Zulu men treat women here, I have compared it with the way American men have treated me in the past. And believe it or not, I see a lot of similarities. The Zulu men are just a lot more upfront and American men are good at putting on an act fooling you, although they probably have the mind of a Zulu man. When I think about how annoying Zulu men can be, then I think about how some American men get away with stuff like that too – why should it be any different? Try sweet talking me again, American men. NOPE. Won’t happen.

Luckily, I rarely get hit on in my village and feel extremely safe. If I do, it’s usually from the village crazy who is a neighbour.

Today at my school’s morning assembly when I walked past him he tried to take my hand and corner me. As he was getting all up in my grill, I yelled sternly, “LEAVE ME ALONE.” Then the other educators heard, they screamed at him in Zulu and off he went.

I forgot about the instance until after school when a group of grade 7 boys came to the library. They asked me what happened that morning, and I simply told them that I get frustrated when men get too close to me. Then one of the boys said he came by to apologize for what had happened. The village crazy is his relative and he, “is crazy.”

That grade 7 boy is going to be a good man and role model for others. There are some responsible, young boys in my community that know wrong from right and how a woman should be treated. Eventually, although it may take generations, there will be more men in this country like that grade 7 boy.

Sexual harassment is an issue any female PCV will face – and even male PCVs in some cases. You just have to find the right way to deal with it; there is no right or wrong way. Sometimes, when I am around others who can help like my family or co-workers, I get angry and scream at men. In other circumstances, mostly when I’m alone, I just laugh because it’s actually pretty funny they think they even have a chance.

Here’s to self-growth – any American man from now on will have to work for me if they want me. I wish more girls understood that about Zulu men. I hope my counterpart and I can get that through to our Girls on the Rise club in the future! After all, service is about making small strides within the bigger picture.


Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. April #

    I was able to play off it a lot of the times. I just told a lot of guys they were too ugly or they couldn’t afford me. Don’t know how culturally appropriate those replies would be in your country though. 🙂 I had marriage proposals all the time which did get annoying after awhile. It helps to vent and compare with other PCVs. Good luck and don’t get downhearted!

    March 4, 2013
    • Thank you! It really depends on the day, sometimes I laugh a lot at the proposals and other days I get soooooo annoyed. Venting to others is such a help because everyone deals with it. In this country, 15 cows is the usual price for a bride. I tell them 30 cows. Or sometimes 50 or 100 🙂

      March 5, 2013

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