Note: This post is part of a series I am hosting on this blog to discuss challenges Peace Corps volunteers face while serving in Kosovo. Below, a friend of mine shares her experiences with sexual harassment. — April
Let me start off by saying that what I am about to talk about will show a more negative side to my time in Kosovo but that does not reflect my overall feelings towards my country of service. I’m still here, aren’t I? However, I would be lying if I said that it didn’t affect me, sometimes more so than I’m willing to admit. I can directly attribute my depression last September to the excessive amount of sexual harassment I experienced one day after another. While you’ll find different perspectives from volunteer to volunteer, many additional stories, what I write here is all from my personal experience.
Being a solo female traveler comes with added hardships that are out of my control simply because of my gender. Many of you females reading this will understand that simple statement. So if follows that being a female volunteer will also come with a lot of similar difficulties.
Kosovo, for all intents and purposes, is a male-dominated culture. I have been able to circumvent many things simply because of my “Americaness” but not without difficulty. While there is a café in my village, I cannot go unless I’m accompanied by a male. It took months before I was allowed to be out after dark on my own. I am expected to stop whatever it is I’m doing and stand for men when they entered a room and I am often defined by my marital status (or lack thereof).
At first I thought that it was simply because I was an American as to why I was attracting so much unwanted attention. But then I realized it didn’t matter if people thought I was an American or an Albanian woman, the treatment was the same.
It started small (or it felt that way in my mind). Men calling at me in the streets whenever I left the comforts of my village, men “casually” touching me as they walked past, or inviting themselves for what appeared as casual conversations. Then I noticed how it seemed to escalate. Not only would men call at me in the street but on more than one occasion they would then start to follow me, either silently or insensately shouting personal questions in my direction. The casual touching turned into hands sliding across my breasts or butt to walk past me. The unwanted invitations to chat turned into them stalking me on social media and messaging me over and over and over again where even blocking them didn’t deter their efforts. I had just about had it when a man who was sitting in the seat in front of me on the bus began starring directly at me through the seat crack and began masturbating.
Sometimes it can feel constant. Summer is when I felt the worst because (what I assume) more people are out and about and it’s also when I left my village more often. While back home in America, I am the first one to tell a man who invades my personal space off, I don’t have the cultural or linguistic knowledge here to do it. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever will. So I found myself staying in the confines of my small village to avoid the harassment but all that did was make me more depressed. It took all my will power but I wasn’t going to let these ignorant people ruin my life.
So while I know it still happens I’ve found some coping mechanisms that help to let it not impact my mental health so much.
1. Headphones. Honestly, what I think is the best invention since sliced bread. If I’m alone most likely my headphones are in. They don’t even have to be playing anything. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t America and people will still try to talk to you but it gives you a full proof excuse to pretend like you don’t hear them even if you do.
2. I’m normally the type of person that is fully aware of all of my surroundings. However, I have pulled my scope in. Not too much that I compromise my own safety but enough that I don’t have to notice every disgusting comment, gesture, or look sent my way.
3. Being a regular. This can honestly go both ways, which is why it may take a few tries to get it right. I have a regular bus I take to the major cities with drivers and attendants who know me. I go to the same cafés every week with people who know me. They are the people who will look out for me when I need it. While I absolutely loathe feeling like a damsel in distress who needs others to protect me, I’ve sucked up my pride because it doesn’t hurt to have people in my corner.
4. Companionship. I have found that if I am just with 1 other person, especially another male, the sexual harassment dissipates if not becomes almost non-existent. Which is also why it can be very difficult for my male counterparts to understand exactly what it is that I experience on my own. While I may not recommend this as a permanent fix (because who wants to be escorted all their life), my service here is only 2 years so it’s a minor adjustment I’m willing to make.
Being sexually harassed is an exhausting experience. Sometimes I feel like I have to constantly look over my shoulder to protect my safety. Many friends have said that maybe I’m over exaggerating it or that I’m too defensive and should be nicer because they don’t mean any harm. But that’s just it. I don’t know. I don’t know who they are, what their intentions are. There is a thin line between harmless flirting and creepy stalking and I’ve found that it’s a line that many men here don’t know the difference between.
To my female readers, keep trekking on. Find the things you can do to make it easier on yourself. Don’t let male-dominated cultures or harassment make you give up.