World YWCA Week Without Violence-Everyday Sexual Assault and Harassment

Rachael-Anne O’Byrne, age 26 from Scotland.

I am the Learning & Development Officer with YWCA Scotland. My role includes developing and delivering training programmes for youth and community workers across Scotland in gender issues providing toolkits that can be used in youth groups and programmes. This is a pilot project with YWCA Scotland which we hope will continue beyond the initial funded period. Previous to this role, I oversaw a programme of activities for girls and young women within YWCA Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland which aimed to build confidence, self esteem, leadership and various other skills.

Rachael-Anne O’Byrne

As well as my staff role with YWCA Scotland, I am involved in the work of YWCA of Great Britain – most recently being on the steering group which is helping to organise a Great Britain wide conference on Violence Against Women. I am also going to represent YWCA of Great Britain at the up and coming ITI in Seoul, Korea.

Everyday Sexual Assault and Harassment

Recently, I read two articles on the same day which upset, worried and angered me. I wrote about the articles for the YWCA of Great Britain’s website and feature ‘Y Response’ and I’d like to share my reflections on them as part of World YWCA’s Week Without Violence. I read Laura Bates’ article, Every Day Sexual Assault in the UK.[1] And, on the same day, I read another article sent to me by a colleague with the title: Egypt’s Sexual Harassment of Women ‘Epidemic.[2] Both articles concerned women’s daily harassment and assault on the streets. I think the fact that they were posted on the same day really highlights the gravity of this issue.

Violence against women has many faces and sexual harassment and assault cannot go unnoticed when discussing the prevalence and many forms that it takes all over the world.

Campaigners in Egypt said that there has been a rise in sexual harassment incidents over the last 3 months, which are detailed within the BBC News article. While Laura Bates’ article recounts the reports of sexual harassment and assault, which are being reported by women from all over the UK to the Everyday Sexism Project.

I learned about the problem of sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt while at YWCA’s World Council 2011 in Zurich. Sandra Aziz, from YWCA of Egypt, showed the International Women’s Summit a trailer from the emotive and powerful film Cairo 678, the story of three women searching for justice from the plight of daily sexual harassment. It is reported that for millions of Egyptian women, sexual harassment is an unspoken aspect of everyday life, and in 2008, a study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that more than 80% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment,[3] showing that it is a problem which is deeply rooted in Egyptian society. The article reports that the Egyptian government are taking the problem seriously, although campaigners argue that it is not yet a priority.

It is more than a year since I was in Zurich, at World Council, so I felt frustrated and saddened that the problem in Egypt was now being reported to be reaching ‘epidemic proportions’, particularly after witnessing the sheer enthusiasm and determination from the YWCA of Egypt representative on speaking out about sexual harassment and Cairo 678.

In the UK, Laura Bates designed the Everyday Sexism Project to document sexism experienced worldwide; to show the scale of the problem of sexism and sex discrimination. She informs us that, since it launched only five months ago, there have been hundreds of reports of women being sexually assaulted and harassed in public. The law in the UK on sexual assault is clear, and can carry a ten year prison sentence. However, as Laura Bates has discovered through the project, we live in a society that deliberately downplays, and normalises, sexual assault and harassment, ‘telling women not to make a fuss out of nothing.’[4]

While reading both articles, I recalled an incident that happened recently with a group of young women I’d been working with. After our activity had ended, the young women chose to wait in the centre, with me, until a group of men, who had been working outside of the building, got into their vans and left.

I asked the young women why they wanted to wait, and they said that they didn’t want the men to say anything to them or whistle at them when they walked past. This really struck a chord with me, as I had shared their concerns upon first seeing the men. I was upset that the young women had to feel this way, but was not surprised that they had already experienced this sort of harassment at such a young age, and were now weary in these situations.

As a movement, YWCA strives to create safe spaces for girls and women to live their lives freely, and without fear. As women, we should be able to walk past groups of men, use public transport, and live our lives without fear of harassment, no matter where we are in the world.

YWCA Scotland’s Learning and Development Project is currently developing and delivering courses for youth workers and volunteers across Scotland, to raise awareness of gender issues such as self-esteem, gender stereotyping, sexualisation and sexual bullying, including harassment. We are also working in partnership with the Scottish organization Zero Tolerance to roll out the training course, ‘Under Pressure,’ to more volunteers and youth workers, which will increase awareness of the issue of abuse and sexual exploitation in young people’s relationships. As well as raising awareness of issues, all the training courses also provide toolkits that can be used in practice within youth work settings.

My reflection on the issue of sexual harassment and assault reflects on two countries, the United Kingdom and Egypt but I know that sexual harassment is a global issue that needs to be seriously addressed. This is not something that we can afford to ‘downplay.’ It is not right that a woman can’t walk down the street without fear of being leered at, harassed or sexually assaulted and it certainly is not OK that young women who attend their local YWCA programme feared leaving the building due to the male presence outside.

I would like to encourage you to visit the following websites, where you will find more information on the organisations and movements who are currently campaigning about, and raising awareness of, sexual harassment, as well as more information on the issue along with advice.

More information on YWCA Scotland, including the Learning and Development Project, can be found at, and more information on Zero Tolerance and ‘Under Pressure’ can be found at



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