As I sat on the floor of this crowded room I was struck with two main thoughts:

1) I am so happy to be here.

2) I should write about safe spaces... or the lack thereof.

 

This post is, unfortunately about the latter thought, though the two are inextricably intertwined.  I attended the Women Deliver conference for the very first time last about a year ago, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  It was an incredible journey, as overwhelming as it was heart-shattering! It also tested all my emotions.  I had never expected to feel lonely or angry or sad in a space meant for the empowerment of girls and women, but at times, I found myself feeling lonely, angry, and sad.

It wasn’t a main event, but a concurrent one.  The room was crowded; I can’t be sure why so many people, myself included, had been drawn to this session in particular.  I arrived about 5 minutes late, so entered discreetly and sat on the floor, against the wall and beside the microphone stand.  I couldn't see the panelists but I could hear them: proud feminists, speaking passionately about the ways they saw the world was fractured and the ways it could be stitched together anew.  I struggled to refrain from shouting, "PREACH!", as Marai Larasi spoke some truths on the reality of being a black woman in the mainstream media.  I was so glad to be there.

SAFE SPACE.

In the 3 days prior to this particular event, I had attended the conference everyday.  The Bella Center at this point felt like familiar grounds.  I had experienced so much there: love, understanding… and a sufficient number of violations of my personal space.  I don't know; silly and first-timer me had assumed that a conference for the wellbeing of women and girls is synonymous with safe spaces for women and girls.

This event was populated by over 5000 people, and in my mind, I thought it would be 5000 people that "got it."

I had strolled in there, an advocate working in child sexual abuse prevention, with the confidence of one of the silly girls in the ridiculous TV commercials for sanitary pads, twirling and singing at the delights of menstruation.

I was in for a rude awakening.

WE SPOKE ABOUT THIS.

I traveled to the conference as a youth scholar of Women Deliver.  I stayed in the same hotel as a number of fellow young men and women, all of whom were changemakers globally or in their respective communities.  But it was only Day One before I found myself discussing the need for safe spaces – well before I’d even identified an issue.  I had befriended two delegates, one from Trinidad and Tobago and the other from Johannesburg.  We spoke of many things - mainly our expectations for the following days - but we did, lightly, speak of what it meant for us as young black women to be surrendered by young men who already seemed just a little too eager to get acquainted.

Our suspicions were proven right, and quickly.  It seemed I was in the company of men with raging hormones.  The stares were too intense, the hugs were too tight.  Professionalism was quickly usurped by overfamiliarity.

“HEY, ARE YOU AWAKE?”

Prior to the conference, my contact information had been shared – with my permission -with the 300 fellow scholars in attendance.  But on that first night, I received 4 text messages from male scholars, each stating something along the lines of: "Are you in your room? Can I come over?"

The temptation to truthfully answer, "Yes I am, and no, you can’t" wasn’t so easily done (well, typed) as imagined.  This is the paradox of the objectified woman, who asks herself:

  • Would I appear unfriendly or too stuck up for rejecting an unwanted advance?

  • Did I send some mixed messages to each of these four young men that made them think it was okay proposition me?

  • Should I assume the best of their intentions just say yes in the hopes that their intentions are platonic? Perhaps they all simply want to talk… But what if they don’t? What if something horrible happens to me and my willingness to say “Yes, you can talk to me” is interpreted incorrectly as “Yes, you can lay your hands on me.”

So I did what many women do when they are threatened and afraid to confront aggressive male sexual attention.  I ignored the texts and went about my business.

A DISCLAIMER.

Before I dive further into the incidents of sexual harassment and intimidation I experienced and witnessed in this space, I feel it is important to give a wider context to this discussion.  This is not a disparagement of Women Deliver, who organized a phenomenal conference and have been an enormous source of support to me, nor of the youth delegates, so many of whom worked hard, treated one another with respect, and achieved amazing things.  It is not an indictment of men, or boys, but the few – but too many - who made me feel like I had to make myself smaller and take evasive action to prevent being sexualized in a gender equality space.

It was lunchtime on Day 2 of the conference, and I was starving.  I headed to the hot lunch tables but, as a non-pork eater, I realized I must have been late – all the options I would have enjoyed eating were long gone.  I grabbed some of the remaining food and made for a gentleman I recognized, who stood with 4 other men.

“Can I join you?” I asked.

“Sure,” my acquaintance said.

My plate must have looked pitifully empty because I was soon offered a piece of chicken.  My gratitude was short-lived, as the offering was immediately followed by what I will only loosely describe as a joke: "Now you owe me 2 hours for that chicken."

I don't recall my exact reaction.  I probably smiled and said, “I don't think so.” playing off a remark in which my gender was the punchline so as not to upset this group of men who were, more or less, completely strangers.  

But that wasn't the worst thing that had happened to me at that table: the young fella breathing on my neck was.  The one that who bluntly whispered to me, flirtatious things, sexual things.  When my discomfort reached boiling point a couple times, I asked him to speak up so we could all hear whatever he was murmuring.

“Do you suffer from a specific condition that only lets you speak to women in hushed-tones?” I asked.

When he finally gave me his card and left, the other men gave me sad, compassionate glances.  But they were followed soon by snickers. I sadly laughed with them.

MY HEIGHT IS DRIVING YOU CRAZY? OKAY, BUT WHY?

As I worked, I began to think more and more of the children I had entered this sector for.  The ones who wanted to navigate the world, innocent and curious until they could gently ease into adult life without being subjected to the trauma of sexual violation.  I wondered how, even in a space like this, I could not expect the same right.

I was overwhelmed from having dealt with already too much, but I was trying to survive and make the best of my time.  I ventured to the booths, and ended up in front of a very cool stand.  Visitors were given the option to take a picture with some silly props, in exchange for a donation to a cause related to the rights and wellbeing of girls.

I was looking at the props when a fellow youth scholar came up to me.  He stood way too close and asked, "Have we met?"

I replied no.

He talked to me – no, at me – and I tried to play polite.  But however the conversation steered, he found a way to bring it back to my height.

"You are tall," he said at one point, as if I wasn’t aware.

 “I love a tall girl,” he volunteered, without prompting.

“I’m crazy about your height," he eventually said.  And I wondered if he thought I was really too dense to have worked that out for myself.

I told him to leave me be, because I was waiting to have my picture taken and the props in my hands occupied my attention.  That's when he dipped towards me.  Looking back, he may have just wanted to read my prop, but I’m not so sure.  I was startled by the sudden move, and I threw my hand up to protect my face.  Instead, my fingers ended up almost entirely inside of his mouth.

He jumped back, indignant, and said, "Are you trying to kill me?"

At that point, a staff member at the booth said to him, "You were way too close to her."

I ran towards the nearest restroom to wash my hands.

MALE COMFORT OVER FEMALE SAFETY.

I'll finish this article where it all started: in the crowded room.

The topic was safe spaces, and my good friend Vivian spoke of it with great consideration and wisdom.  She said – and I'm paraphrasing:

"Even here, women are being violated and they are not talking."

When question time began, I took the microphone.

I told the people in the room that perhaps women didn't talk about being violated because we didn't know how to, and that a majority of us are conditioned to just nod and smile.  I gave the example of how little girls that are called out with the awful expression, "Don't be shy", when they just don't want to hug their creepy uncle.

I asked the room to consider what was being taught to girls in that moment: that her body truly doesn't belong to her, and that the comfort of the man who pushes her boundaries is more important than the boundaries themselves.

My words were received with applause, and at that moment I felt the thrill of understanding, and of being understood. 

But what comes after the sessions end and the young scholars return to their respective countries? Do they feel empowered, inspired? I’m sure they do… but do they also, as I did, feel an undercurrent of despair?

If sexual harassment can be so rampant in what is supposed to be a safe space for girls and women, then what does that say about the rest of the world, where they are not marked as such.

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