Unsafe Neighborhoods

Irina Echarry

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES – Alamar’s streets are becoming more and more dangerous. Darkness enshrouds any evil act. A few months ago, I was getting off the 400 bus. It was midnight and I was crossing Plaza de Africa when a young man violently pulled on the backpack I was carrying on my shoulders, I just about managed to stay upright. 

My cry made two men who were coming in our direction, but still a little far off, react and they made some noise which led to the young man vanishing between some buildings. I thanked them from a distance but then I immediately realized that I couldn’t be alone in the dark with two strange men; I had the impulse to run all the way home.

I remembered a time in the ‘90s when there wasn’t any electricity at home or outside on the street, and a group of mischievous or maybe just bored young kids began to throw stones at me and lift up my skirt. I couldn’t believe it, the eldest was only about 9 years old. I was super uncomfortable in that situation because I didn’t know what to do… the kids didn’t react to my scolding them and there wasn’t a single soul on that route I had taken to save some time. Then, a young man on a bike appeared out of nowhere. He scared them off using their own method: by throwing stones. Luckily, nobody got injured.

Bewildered, I agreed to get on his bike and for him to take me where I was going. When I got there, while I thanked him for his trouble, the guy turned around on his bike as if to leave but he grabbed one of my buttocks as he passed me by. I have his face imprinted in my memory, the cynical smile, the wink…

It was unbelievable. I didn’t understand at the time why that had happened to me. I cried a lot thinking that I had done something wrong.

Ever since then, I’ve never been able to enjoy a walk or being in a park alone.

Last Tuesday, I was on my way home at a time when the country becomes paralyzed: the sacred telenovela hour. Once again, it was dark. As taxis don’t adapt their routes to their customers, rather you have to follow the routes they impose, I had to get off at Avenida de los Cocos and walk to my house along the street with the Lazaro Pena primary school.

Without a streetlight to illuminate that road a little, I was surprised by a hand on my shoulder: How are things? I asked hoping that it was somebody I knew, but the shadow just took a step back. So, I kneeled down looking for something on the ground to use as a weapon, the shadow made me think that it was leaving but when I got up, it came towards me again, this time from behind. I clung on tight to my bag but he (I could tell it was a man from his body) had no intention of robbing me. In a few seconds, he had rubbed his hands all over my body, he touched everything he could until I remembered that my umbrella could help me to keep him away. That man didn’t say a word, he just moaned. After shouting at him and hitting him with the umbrella a few times, he left. Nobody came out onto their balcony to see what was going on, it all happened so fast.

I have told my story to several people, here are their reactions.

The most affectionate:

Luckily, nothing serious happened.

At least you weren’t robbed.

When you get home at that time, tell a friend so they can come and meet you.

Those who blame me:

Why did you wait until night fell to come home?

My dear, I think you’re imagining all of this, not even if you were the prettiest…

If you didn’t see him and you can’t describe him, we can’t do anything.

I’m sure you were walking about in tight trousers… ah, it was a dress, was it very short?

The most proactive:

Buy some pepper spray.

Learn self-defense.

Every one of these comments (said with the best of intentions) confirm the fact that public spaces aren’t safe for women. I know that my country doesn’t have (and won’t have) fuel to light up every street, but the State, the municipal government and society as a whole are all responsible for keeping our streets safe. A neighborhood in darkness is a potential danger for everyone. As well as being robbed, attacked and physically abused, women are exposed to other dangers such as harassment and rape.

It’s a suffocating situation that doesn’t just come down to a lack of street lighting. I can learn self defense, I can spray an attacker in the eyes, or try to come home while it’s still day-time, I would probably walk down this street with a bit less fear, but the city continues to be unsafe, other women will have a fright and society will continue to hold them responsible.

Irina Echarry

Irina Echarry: I enjoy reading, going to the movies and spending time with my friends. Many of the people I love are dead, or are no longer in Cuba. I will do my best to transmit my thoughts, ideas or worries via these pages so you can get to know me. I will give an idea of my age, since it helps explain certain things. I’m over thirty-five, and I think that’s enough information. I don’t have any children yet, or nieces or nephews. There are days when I transform myself into a child with no age at all in order to see life from another angle. It helps me break the monotony and survive in this strange world.