On my first day in Lesotho — a hardscrabble, high-altitude kingdom in sub-Saharan Africa — the security guard at my government-run lodgings shook my hand and held on too long. After several awkward seconds, I clumsily took my hand back.
Later that night, around 10 p.m., I awoke to someone rattling the door handle of my rondavel — a round stone hut with a thatched roof. I reached for my heavy Nikon preparing to defend myself but, luckily, the door stayed locked. Every hour or so after that, I heard someone pacing outside. In the morning, I reported the incidents.
“It was probably the security guard,” a female employee suggested.
When I asked that the guard be disciplined, the woman looked away and said nothing. Lesotho, too, I thought.
The epidemic of sexual violence against women in Lesotho, a nation of 2.2 million people, is arguably the worst in the world. But it is rarely reported.
I spent three weeks in the country, dodging unwanted advances and hearing stories of frequent, unpunished sexual assaults. It was the most threatening environment for women that I had ever navigated. If somehow you still don’t recognize the sweeping scale of sexual assault, if you think women across the world don’t need to fight for each other with everything we have, try visiting Lesotho, where holding a man accountable for sexual violence is almost impossible.
In my work as a guidebook author, Lesotho certainly isn’t the only place I’ve dealt with sexual aggression. In Bali, men asked me to pose for photos and grabbed me close. In the Dominican Republic, I couldn’t stroll in the capital without being hissed at. In San Jose, Costa Rica, a man approached me in a residential neighborhood, smacked my butt and ran.
I shrugged it all off, preferring to think of these men as worthless outliers. In retrospect — and especially after what I discovered in Lesotho — this was wildly optimistic.
The epidemic of sexual violence against women in this nation of 2.2 million people is arguably the worst in the world, but it is rarely reported. The problem, women’s rights advocates say, begins in childhood. Girls are taught to be compliant, to quietly endure suffering and to serve men.
The director of a local aid organization told me grown men regularly flirt with her 8-year-old daughter in the grocery store, capitalizing early on a grossly unequal power dynamic. UNICEF found that 19% of girls under 18 in Lesotho are forced into (illegal) marriages, oftentimes with older men. The rate of new HIV infections is the highest in the world (one in four people have the disease) thanks in no small part to a virtual army of Harvey Weinsteins preying on economically disadvantaged young women.
In response to questionnaires circulated by Catholic Relief Services in Lesotho, women have reported that in school, teachers request sex from female students in return for passing grades. At garment factories, security guards require women seeking jobs to have sex before entering the building. Inside, bosses want sex in exchange for hiring women and offering them overtime (which women need to obtain food for children they raise alone because the fathers are often out committing sexual abuse). Marriage offers little protection, as husbands feel free to demand sex at home whenever they please.
Women rarely discuss or report any of these encounters. The subject of sex is taboo, and aggressors are unlikely to face consequences. Women who do report sexual abuse risk retaliation.
Police are routinely the culprits and even those who are not may be nonchalant about sex crimes. Cases are delayed or dismissed with petty excuses. One aid worker told me police failed to prosecute the rape of a 5-year-old girl because the perpetrator said he was sorry. Lerato Seema, a project manager with the Lesotho Federation of Women Lawyers, says that police tend to treat offenses as “domestic issues” that “they’ll just try to mediate.”
On my fifth day in Lesotho, my car got stuck on a mountain road. After a few minutes, a group of four women came walking from a nearby village and stood quietly beside the car. When I asked what they were doing, one explained that it wasn’t safe for me there because “herd boys are silly.” She said this without emotion, her voice a low monotone, and I understood what was to her a simple fact of life: If I were alone there, shepherds might rape me.
“Many girls and young women assume that this is just the way things are,” Erica Dahl-Bredine, the Lesotho representative for CRS, told me. “They’ve told us: ‘Boys and men are just like that; they cannot control themselves. They treat women as they wish and we have to accept it.’”
There are efforts underway to change the culture of Lesotho: awareness campaigns about the laws, a CRS program called DREAMS that helps girls fight oppression with communication skills and financial literacy, another run by a children’s aid group, Sepheo, and called Khotatsong (“Courageous” in Sesotho, the national language), which aims to redirect the strength of men toward protecting women.
Those efforts are certainly noble. But until women speak up and demand to live free from sexual aggression in Lesotho and every other country in the world — and until predators are held to account — they will remain at our doorways, testing the knob.
On one of my last nights in Lesotho, a hotel manager held my hand too long. I understood more quickly this time, and I pulled it back as hard as I could.
Ashley Harrell is a travel journalist and former Village Voice Media staff writer.