One of the ways rape culture perpetuates itself is through sexual harassment. Sexual harassment which includes language that demeans women by targeting and sexualizing their physical appearance and non-consensual touching happens in every facet of life in Africa. But it is most pervasive in African markets.
Because markets are often, cramped environments bustling with life and activity, vendors have to find innovative ways to draw the attention of frazzled customers. Some resort to shouting and touching. But this takes a sinister turn when vendors cross the boundary into sexual territory, addressing customers by their appearance and genitalia, fondling customers and female vendors and even going as far as physically harassing customers who do not respond favourably to the unwanted attention.
This used to be taken as normal but not anymore. In Lagos Damilola Marcus started the Market March, a non-profit whose major task was to challenge the harassment in Nigerian markets through public protest and education. Marcus has seen attitudes change in Lagos and Eastern Nigeria as result of these marches. But this is not a Nigerian-only problem and women across the continent are fed up and taking action.
The market women of Kampala’s major markets (in Uganda) are also making their stand against sexual harassment through their local women’s representative union. Worried by the constant harassment of underaged girls who are forced to work as apprentices and servers within the markets, the women of the market ecosystem, in partnership with the Institute of Social Transformation (IST), the women have instituted a formal punishment system that fines men who are accused of and proven to have sexually harassed other vendors or customers, fining them a significant amount of money as way to deter them from acting in this way.
To see women across the continent taking the initiative to challenge rape culture and bring consequences to deviant behaviour is inspiring because it bucks the trend that women on the continent need external intervention to challenge rape culture and protect themselves. Now we need formal legislation to protect their rights and provide the necessary incentive for men to change.
Edwin Okolo is an author and journalist who has worked with YNaija, TheNativemag and the Naked Convos.