When sexual harassment is just a phone call away

It is a lot harder to get a lady’s phone number in Kenya than in Brazil, Egypt, India and Colombia, but that has not completely insulated Kenyan women from receiving surprise unwelcome calls and messages from strangers, reveals a study released yesterday by Truecaller, a company that helps phone users identify callers and detect spam.

About two-thirds of Kenyan women avoid sharing their phone number with other people, compared with Brazil’s three per cent, Egypt (28 per cent), India (36 per cent) and Colombia (44 per cent). But, despite the caution, nine out of 10 still receive harassment and nuisance calls. One in five also regularly receives sexually inappropriate calls or messages, a rate just as high as India’s but dwarfed by Egypt’s one in three.

“It is such a nasty thing one cannot get used to, but there is little I can do,” says Ms Esther Gacau,  30.

But even more worrying is that despite women reporting that such calls and messages are offensive, only one in 10 women (11 per cent) in Kenya considers them as constituting harassment, compared with India (58 per cent), Egypt (35 per cent), Colombia (17 per cent) and Egypt (eight per cent).

The study, Insights: The Impact of Harassment Calls & SMS for Women in India, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt & Kenya, established that the vice is more prevalent in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kiambu and Nakuru.

Sexual harassment is the leading safety and security concern for girls and women worldwide, according to Girls’ Safety in Cities Across the World, a survey conducted by Plan International in 2018, in which 94 per cent of the respondents said the risk of sexual harassment in Nairobi was either high or extremely high.

The survey defined sexual harassment as hassling, eve-teasing, stalking, touching, flashing and staring at girls and young women.

Such harassment has grown tremendously with the proliferation of the mobile phone, a garget that has become part of life, useful not only in communication but also in financial transactions, especially in Kenya, the home of M-Pesa. About 10.4 million females over the age of 30 own a phone, translating to 47 per cent of that population, according to the 2019 census.

But why give out one’s number to a stranger at all in the first place anyway?

The study lists several circumstances under which Kenyan women give out their phone numbers, all of them hardly avoidable – half while shopping or filling in a visitors’ logbook, 17 per cent while entering a contest, 15 per cent during hotel or restaurant reservation, 15 per cent when recharging their mobile phone and four per cent while accepting a delivery.

What many women do not understand is how this information, given out in such formal transactions, ends up in the hands of random men who keep calling and reaching out to them with unwelcome messages.

A majority (53 per cent) of the women that were called or sent messages by strangers reported being angered, 42 per cent were offended, 30 per cent irritated, 27 per cent troubled and 26 per cent felt fear, according to the study.

“It is a crazy world out there,” says Ms Esther Gacau, a 30-year-old businesswoman living in Nairobi who has had several run-ins with stalkers.

Recently, she was selling human hair online when a man posing as a prospective customer interested in buying it for his girlfriend started communicating with her on Facebook. His inquiries were intermittent so she proposed that they link up via phone and conclude the transaction. It is that decision that saw a seemingly lucrative business opportunity turn into torment. “As soon as I called him, he told me that he had seen and liked my profile and really wanted to meet me,” she told Newsplex. Her pleas to have their engagement stick to business bore little fruit. She knew she was dealing with an extreme case of perversion when the man started bombarding her with explicit and inappropriate messages. Her patience soon ran out with the first arrival of nude photos via WhatsApp. She blocked his line.

Normalising sexual harassment?

Only one in five women take action against the offence, while at least three in five in the other four countries do so. Some 49 per cent block the number, 40 per cent ignore the calls or SMSes, 32 per cent call their operator for help and 29 per cent told harasser to stop. A measly six per cent reported to the authorities, low engagement of the police being common in all the five countries.

“Even after having many such experiences, it is such a nasty thing one cannot get used to, but there is little I can do,” says Esther.

The study notes that for Kenyan women, with little support from authorities and local attitudes, harassment often has to be severe before women speak out.

Close to half (47 per cent) of the sexual or inappropriate calls come from within the cold and mean walls of Kenyan prisons, far ahead of Brazil’s 27 per cent, the other of the two countries where inmates are notorious for stalking women via phone.

This only adds yet another stripe to the reputation of Kenya’s correctional facilities, already famed for harbouring criminals who spend their jail term swindling hard-working citizens of their wealth.

The survey was conducted with the support of Ipsos between November 22, 2019 and February 24, 2020.