In a post #MeToo era, plenty of people are paying lip service to the cause even if deep down they’re not really onboard. Then there’s people working on stopping harassment for ages now like ‘Stop Harassment Now’.
Stop Harassment Now is a non-profit organization that’s helping women counter harassment through legal aid, psychological counseling, etc.
The Story Behind ‘Stop Harassment Now’
It started when a Software Engineer couldn’t stand by to see his female friends tormented anymore. According to Usman Awan, one of his friends from university, was going through a rough phase in her life as her degree was on probation for the third time.
That’s when she reached out to the university administration for help. A man in the admin promised to help her and asked for her number so they could coordinate. When he called it was actually an offer to ‘help’ if she let him exploit her. That’s when Usman realized the harasser was preying off a woman’s weakness.
He urged his friend to say no and decided why not turn the tables by targeting the harassers’ Achille’s heel. According to the social activist:
“This man was exploiting her weakness .… That’s when I realized harassers also fear something, damage to rapport. That’s their weak spot”
It’s a general understanding that harassers use their rapport and position to exploit others. They thrive off the power their position affords them. Rather than become a victim, a woman must react bravely and act like someone that can take away that rapport. So he asked his friend to respond firmly to the man in admin. When she said she would report him to authorities with screenshots of their conversation as proof, the man instantly began apologizing.
Not So Simple Solution to ‘Stop Harassment Now’
If the solution is as simple as ‘standing up for yourself’, why is harassment a rampant issue? The problem is a lack of awareness. While people are willing to work for any other social issue like poverty, unemployment, water issues and more, not enough people are addressing harassment.
Usman actually wanted to be an entrepreneur, only now he’s a social entrepreneur.
He started volunteering for causes and blogging about them during his 3rd semester in university. Pretty soon he launched his first initiative for charity, “Step Forward Pakistan”. He then went on to start an education project “Smile for Pakistan”. Now he’s solely focused on harassment.
“Pakistan is one of the most charitable nations and people donate for various social issues. Yet no one works on harassment, as it’s not even identified as an issue. We all do charity. I needed to step forward to work on something bigger”
As a man, he doesn’t really fit the bill of that activist against harassment. Usman explains that he had always wanted a cause to peruse and now he’s found it. That’s part of his identity now. He actually argues given that we live in a male-dominated society, men should be more sensitive about the issue.
With fewer women in public offices and positions of authority, they’re more likely to be targeted. Yet when men get harassed they also don’t even come forward out of fear of being mocked by other men.
“Harassment is not specific to women. It is unfair to associate harassment to just women. The way men are harassed is just as painful. The overall ratio has more women since we live in a male-dominated society,”
Initially ‘Stop Harassment Now’ aimed to solve people’s harassment cases. Now they aim to empower through awareness so that people can help themselves.
Usman explained that when you speak on an issue, its awareness acts as a preventative measure. Take the example of a medical disease like dengue. There are awareness campaigns on preventative measures for it and this, in turn, helps people lookout for symptoms.
“Awareness has a relation to cure and prevention is better than cure,”
He explained that harassment does not escalate to sexual harassment in one fell swoop. It’s a gradual process. If people are aware enough to spot the signs and call out the harassers, and that puts an end to a problem before it escalates.
With all the taboos surrounding this issue, no one talks about it, especially parents. Many parents generally curb such discussion, if harassment is perpetrated by a relative. This gap between parents and children is what prevents people from coming forward.
“It is my deep observation that harassers grab weakness …. Gap between parents and children is the biggest reason children end up being exploited, that’s what allows blackmailing.”
He listed many cases where the threat being used by the harasser was ‘I’ll tell your parents’. People were too afraid to speak to their parents, given the consequences were victim-blaming, losing their job, quitting university, etc.
In 198/200 cases that ‘Stop Harassment Now’ received, many had requested anonymity. 70 percent of cases are received through Facebook and email to conceal their identity. Then the victims demand;
- complete anonymity
- don’t tell our parents or get them involved
- no legal prosecution
- involvement of institutions and criminal investigations
- no media coverage
Social taboo also fosters a lack of awareness. Most people can’t even define harassment let alone identify it.
“There’s no awareness on types of harassment let alone on harassment laws. Over 90 percent women in my cases can’t define harassment,”
Due to this lack of awareness people don’t know their rights, the proper legal channels which is why they lack faith in the law. So these are the main causes that harassment goes unchecked;
- *social taboo (gap between parents and children)
- *trust in the legal system
Even Usman is not above pressure from social norms and parents. That parental pressure prevented him from revealing his identity as an activist to his parents
“When I started I couldn’t tell my parents. I couldn’t confess I’m an activist. Then how do I approach other people.”
When he took the first step to cross that threshold of ‘socially acceptable’ is when he got to helping others. Now he gets cases from all across Pakistan. Stop Harassment Now has evolved into an advocacy-based outlet that helps with legal aid.
They now focus on teaching people to define harassment, take preventative measures, and post harassment coping. 50 percent of cases were mild but the psychological impact is crucial to the harasser winning, which is why the outlet is working on psychological counseling.
Along the way, there were threatened sometimes, especially in cases against influential people. That’s why victims are afraid of perusing legal means. The political power system is harsh on the middle class.
“The middle class is always the victim, while elites exploit the law for themselves”
Then people lack faith in institutions and don’t know about proper outlets. For a legal case you need evidence, but an empowered woman can call out a harasser, thus scaring him off. All electronic correspondences are digital evidence that are accepted in a court of law, that’s something many people might not know. They have a network of lawyers who work cases on pro bono basis.
Whenever they tried to organize an awareness session with universities, these institutions would immediately say no. People are just not willing to accept this is a social issue. When harassment is rampant, what is the shame in talking about it?
This may have to do with predators fearing empowerment through awareness.
“I realized somewhere awareness against harassment is curbed by harassers, they fear losing rapport when potential victims are aware of their rights, and people can identity their actions has harassment.”
The Way Forward
Next on the ‘Stop Harassment Now‘ agenda is to work on the exploitation of harassment laws. Right now they’re working on a smartphone application as well.
“Using the law to an advantage is a disservice to people that actually suffer.”
They have a team of psychologists, lawyers and cyber experts on board. These experts will offer free consultation via the smartphone app. The app interface will directly report cases to FIA with details.
Previously the social body lacked legal authority so they couldn’t do more than just push the case to FIA.
Now their team can really work on our preventative measures. Each case will be assigned to the most relevant expert. This is how they’re bridging gap between people and the proper legal channels.