Hollaback! helps women fight harassment

Holly Kearl has been running marathons since she was 14. Running outdoors was her favorite pastime and a stress reliever until a confrontation during her junior year in college.

She was out for a run in the park when a man yelled sexually explicit comments and then began to chase her. Kearl was able to safely outsprint him to a well-lit area, but after that incident, her runs were controlled by fear.

"I could go out for an hour-long run during the day and sexually explicit comments by men and car-horn honking would occur at least 10 times -- it was so bad," Kearl said. "I felt dirty and scared. I started to change my life due to the harassment. I changed my class schedule so I could run early in the morning. On weekends, I would take a 45-minute bus ride to a park where I could run harassment free."

Elizabeth Rappaport/Ms. Foundation for Women

Jerin Alam and Kathleen Adams use the Hollaback! app.

When relocating after college, Kearl selected a neighborhood where she thought she would experience the least amount of harassment during her runs.

Kearl, like many other women, had let street harassment -- which is defined as any action or comment between strangers in public places that is disrespectful, threatening or harassing and is motivated by gender -- control her workouts. Common methods of harassment, as defined on Kearl's website, stopstreetharassment.org, are whistling, yelling sexual or threatening comments and ogling.

While researching her senior thesis, Kearl learned she was not alone in her fears.

Kearl discovered a group of women who grew tired of being hollered at and decided to do something about it by creating the group Hollaback! Founded in 2005, Hollaback! is a nonprofit that uses mobile technology to eliminate street harassment. Victims of street harassment can use the Hollaback! app and website to post a photo and the location of the harassers, along with a description of what occurred. If a woman is harassed while running, she can press the Hollaback! button on her phone to note the location. She can, but is not required to, take a photo of her harasser. At a later time, she can fill out an incident report that Hollaback! vets and places on its website.

Hollaback! groups are located in 50 cities and 17 countries and are spreading the message in nine languages. Women are encouraged to start groups in their city if one does not exist.

"The app is awesome for exercising because one comment or look can really get you down for the rest of your workout and day," said Shawna Potter, site leader for Hollaback! Baltimore. "The app empowers me and lets the harasser know, I got you. I got your number! "

By collecting stories and pictures in a safe and shareable manner, Hollaback! is attempting to break the silence around street harassment and assert that all gender-based violence is unacceptable. Hollaback! creates a world where victims have an option -- and, more important, a response.

"Most people think street harassment is just boys being boys, the price you pay for being a woman or even a compliment," said Emily May, one of the founders of Hollaback! "Yet the [Centers for Disease Control] says this type of harassment is the most prevalent form in the country. We have laws against sexual harassment at school and in the workplace. So why don't we have them for the street?"

According to the CDC, one third of women have experienced some type of noncontact, unwanted sexual experience in their lifetime. This includes someone harassing the victim in a public place in a way that made her feel unsafe.

Kearl, who is also the author of "Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women," surveyed 811 women, and 46 percent said they exercise at a gym because of the fear of male harassment and assault outdoors.

"There have been cases where women report an incident of street harassment to a police officer, and the officer doesn't respond to the offense because he doesn't think it to be a problem," Kearl said "Yet street harassment often leads to elevated cases of harassment like groping, assault and rape."

Information collected on the Hollaback! app and website is presented to elected officials in areas experiencing high incidences of street harassment to encourage legislators to address the problem in their communities.

The first public investment of Hollaback! came from the New York City Council, which gave $20,000 in funding to the app.

In Washington, D.C., Kearl is working on a public-service announcement for the Metro transit system to inform commuters and employees how to deal with harassers and where to report them.

Kearl, May and Potter understand street harassment may never disappear, but they hope their work will help shift public opinion on the issue in the United States and internationally.

"Women have completely different access to public space than most men because we are made to feel unsafe in everyday situations," May said. "The price to be a woman living in the United States should be taxes, not street harassment."

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