Is the coast clear?

By Bestuur on 25-11-2023

Is the coast clear?
A call for a street harassment hotline in the Municipality of Maastricht
Written by @Joyce Grul on behalf of M:OED

When was the last time you avoided eye contact on the street to feel safer, detoured, or felt worried about your physical safety because you hear more and more often about someone getting beaten up or people carrying knives? Chances are you or someone close to you has done so as recently as last week. These concerns are also legitimate because people face street harassment every day. For instance, (young) women are often called after with sexually-tinged comments such as “come here bitch” and “where do those nice legs go” or “hey, do you want to fuck?” (source: Catcalls of Maastricht). In some cases, assault also takes place on the street (“Both of them grabbed my ass”). Men, on the other hand, are more at risk of insults, threats (“I’m going to beat you up”), and physical violence. For example, a boy from Maastricht recounts “I was just waiting in front of a pub to go in with my friends. Out of nowhere, another boy comes at me and hits me in my face and breaks my jaw“. There are also other forms of street harassment. For example, people are called after with: “dirty pot“, “rotten Jew“, “hey where did your curls come from”, “gay“, “you’re quite pretty for a black woman“, “are you a man or a woman?”, “why are you in a wheelchair“, “can’t you watch out with that twat stick of yours?” and “fuck off to your own country!“. These are just a handful of examples where we do not do justice to the diversity of street harassment and the daily reality of the individuals involved.

Street harassment affects a large group of people and creates a feeling of insecurity on the streets. It often does not stop at a one-off experience but happens regularly and even sometimes on a daily basis. Victims may experience psychological and emotional consequences such as fear, shame, stress, distrust, and trauma. The harassment can also have profound effects on the victim’s self-image and restriction of movement. The fear and distrust of being in public spaces can cause people to avoid certain places and public transport which in turn affects practising sports, hobbies, participating in nightlife, or attending school or work.

Municipalities have an important task and responsibility to take care of the safety of their residents. They should therefore also contribute to street safety through local policies around monitoring, awareness, prevention, and sanctioning of street harassment. Ten other cities in the Netherlands have already set up (anonymous) street harassment hotlines and commissioned research on the prevalence of street harassment. Research on large cities shows that almost half of the residents have been confronted with street harassment once or more in 2020 (I&O research 2021). Unfortunately, the Maastricht municipality does not yet have insight into the extent of the problem, the most common spots (hotspots) and there is no municipal hotline.

M:OED therefore calls on the municipality of Maastricht to institute a street harassment hotline. This is of major importance because, without figures, the municipality cannot measure whether awareness-raising and prevention activities are effective and cannot improve public spaces at hotspots or common places that people avoid. For instance, lighting and ensuring sightlines in parks or playgrounds could make people feel safer on the streets.

The Maastricht municipality does not need to reinvent the wheel. They can take the example of Amsterdam or Utrecht. There, they have successfully implemented a hotline with an accompanying communication and awareness campaign.

A hotline looks as follows. Reports can be submitted via an app (or at the town hall). This is ideally via the same app where residents can also report nuisance or damage in public spaces so that all is clearly in one place. Through the hotline, residents and visitors can report incidents if they themselves have been victims or bystanders of street harassment. Given that people also avoid certain places, it is also important that unpleasant or unsafe places can be reported. Then, when submitting a report, you can indicate whether you only want to report something, whether you want to receive an overview of support organisations (such as police, sexual assault center, and victim support (slachtofferhulp)), or whether you want to be contacted. Telephone contact allows the reporter to tell their story and advice can be given for appropriate aftercare. It is important that telephone operators are trained so that they have the skills to hold trauma, soggi* *, and culturally sensitive calls. It should also be possible to report anonymously. This creates a low-threshold and accessible hotline.
The municipality will subsequently use the information to: (1) map the extent of the problem, (2) make adjustments to public spaces, (3) address hotspots, (4) develop interventions and feed policy (5) monitor interventions. This should also be clearly communicated through the municipality’s app and website so that there are no false expectations among reporters. For the hotline to be a success, it must be available in multiple languages and well publicised to all residents. A corresponding campaign is therefore a must.

A hotline is therefore about more than numbers and statistics. By doing so, the municipality also issues the following message: street harassment is not acceptable and everyone has the right to feel safe in Maastricht. The hotline also contributes to better care for victims and bystanders. These people would be able to tell their stories and aid, advice, and assistance with possible follow-up steps can be offered. In this way, the municipality considers the person behind the report.

In Maastricht, it is time to take quick and clear action against street harassment and in support of safety on the streets, it is time for a street harassment hotline.

*Street harassment takes place in public spaces and generally the harasser and the victim do not know each other. It is a verbal, non-verbal or physical approach that makes someone feel anxious and unsafe. The trigger for street harassment is generally no more than someone’s (perceived) gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Forms of such harassment include: whistling, name-calling, hissing or clacking (e.g. ‘psssst’ or clacking sound), unwanted touching, trailing/chasing, cornering, stalking or unwanted public display of genitals.

**Soggi – sexual orientations, genders and gender identities

Have you experienced street harassment and want help? Organisations such as the Sexual Violence Center and Victim Support (slachtofferhulp) are here for you and everyone is welcomed.

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