Having the courage to raise my hand and join the thousands of other women who are declaring “Me Too” across social media platforms is hard. It is embarrassing and it hurts and the last thing I want to do is cause my family to worry when I am 3,000 miles away. It is also heartbreaking to see so many people that I love and respect who have been sexually harrassed or assaulted, but these people serve as my inspiration as I write today. Because I have chosen to share my Peace Corps experience in the public platform of a blog, I would like to share one of the instances that led me to proclaim, “Me Too.”
Peace Corps Peru training is held on the outskirts of Lima in a community called Chaclacayo. One Saturday many weeks into training, I had made plans to meet my friend Chris at the training center so we could use some internet and then head to nearby Chosica for a good meal. I left my house in Huascata and got on a combi (think a small bus) to head the 15 minutes down the road to Chaclacayo. I sat in the first seat by the door right next to the conductor who collects money and calls out the bus stops.
At the next stop, a middle aged man with brown straggly hair and wearing jeans and a plain blue t-shirt got on the combi and took a seat right next to mine. I was looking out the window when I felt a hand slide onto my thigh. I did not think much of it, because I am always being touched on crowded combis as bodies are typically smashed right against one another. Out of reflex, I slid to the front of my seat to give the man more room and so that his hand would slide off of my thigh. As soon as I slid forward on my seat, the man slid his open palm under my butt and grabbed hold.
I immediately jumped up and told the conductor I needed to get off the combi at the next stop. The man seated next to me also jumped up, stood behind me, and started rubbing himself on my butt. As soon as the combi door opened, I leaped out expecting that the conductor would never let this man get off the combi after me. I was wrong. The man ran after me as I jumped off the combi and started yelling at me to come back. I saw cars coming and I darted in front of the cars to get across the street and create distance from this man. I ran into the first store I found and looked outside and this man was standing at the entrance of the store staring at me. I picked up my phone and called Chris who did not answer at first. I then called Travis, another friend who I knew was nearby, and with a heavy breath I told him where I was and that a man was outside staring at me and waiting for me to come out. Within 5 minutes, both Travis and Chris showed up at the store and the man jumped on another combi and was out of site.
I was able to call the Peace Corps Safety and Security officers who handled the situation thoroughly by telling me all of my options and offering all of the counseling services I could ever need. What a priveledge. But what about the majority of those without this privelege?
One of those people is a 15 year old girl in my town. Last week, she confided in me that she is 3 months pregnant by a 35 year old man. She said her mom is upset but said that she better stay with this man so he can help with the baby. I was so upset for my student and wanted to do everything I could to help her in this situation, even though she did not recognize this situation as a violation because of how commonly this occurs where I live. I went to the school board and told them of the situation and they were already aware. They told me the mother of this girl never should have let her leave the house with this man and that nothing could be done without the mother taking control of the situation to denunciar the man. They then explained the mother would never denounce this man because then there would be no money to take care of the baby. I was also given the advice that if I got too involved, the man could retaliate.
I was able to immediately call a Safety and Security expert to handle my situation and this young girl cannot even turn to her own mother or town authorities when she is in need of help? Why did I have to feel ashamed and hurt when men whistle and call out at me when I left the house/bodega where I lived when I first arrived in site? How is it okay that almost every single one of my female friends and a large handful of my male friends have been victimized with sexual harrassment or assault? And why must I look at my 4 and 5 year old students and have to pray that they will not grow up in the same harrassment norms?
I am filled with so much hope that this conversation is being had and that we are recognizing that there is a problem. For all of the women and men in my life who have gone through something similar, I believe you and I am here with you.