When will #MeToo reach places like North Philly?

This article was originally published by The Inquirer on January 31st, 2019, by Fuller Project Correspondent Vanessa Davila.

Credit: Heather Khalifa

From the earliest moment I can remember growing up in North Philadelphia, I was harassed for my looks. When I was little, I was teased for being tiny, with protruding teeth. The bullying made me cry at night. As I entered Julia de Burgos magnet middle school, a group of kids placed a photo of me and other girls next to each other and ranked us by who was “prettiest.”

My life became a series of votes and ratings. All of it made me feel more insecure.

Today, I’m the mother of children who have just passed through Philadelphia middle schools. While I know it’s a tough and awkward age for all students, the #MeToo movement has made me consider the deeper legacy of harassment and bullying of young girls like what I faced.

There are so many of barriers facing women in below-poverty-line neighborhoods, but one that is rarely talked about is the pervasive sexual harassment that chips away at girls’ confidence from the moment they enter school. There is catcalling, groping, sexualization, nasty comments, and even assault. I see clearly how my daughter faces more of these challenges than my son. More than two-thirds of high school girls reported sexual or verbal harassment in one 2016 study, and nearly half of middle-schoolers — predominantly girls — had those experiences.

Research indicates that some women are especially at risk: Low-income women are four to six times more likely to experience sexual assault. One study showed that women without a high school diploma are sexually victimized at a 53 percent greater rate than women with a diploma or some college.

Even with the national #MeToo conversation unfolding, it’s hard to see how that is making real change for students in low-income schools, or women in blue-collar jobs. Many of the discussions still focus on Hollywood, celebrities, and high-profile executives, with the solutions geared toward privileged women, like all-women workspaces.

If we really want to invest in gender equality, it’s time to include women from other backgrounds — and start earlier in their lives.

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