Czech wins Woman in Youth Activism Award for her work in preventing sexual violence

Photo illustrative: Leon israel, CC BY-SA 4.0

This year’s Woman in Youth Activism Award for strengthening the voice of young women in Europe went to Czech activist Johanna Nejedlová. The 28-year-old Czech is the co-founder of Konsent, which focuses on preventing sexual violence and creating a safer environment for women. She beat the world-famous Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who was shortlisted in the same category.

Johanna Nejedlová, photo: archive of Johanna Nejedlová
I met with Johanna Nejedlová to talk about her work and I started by asking what motivated her to establish her NGO more than two years ago:

“The incentive to start with this activity was when Amnesty International was doing research on what Czech society thought about rape and about the role of the victim.

“The research showed that 63 percent of Czechs believe that the victim is partly to be blamed for being raped, because she was either drunk, or she was flirting or wearing a short skirt.

“I was reading the research and comments on Facebook about it, and it made me really angry. So I wrote down a post and at the end I said: We have to stop this, we should do something about it.

“My post went viral and people started to message me, saying: We want to get involved and to do something about it.

“I am not sure I actually planned to do anything when I wrote it, but when people started reaching me, I decided we had to do something about it so we teamed up and started to think about possible actions.”

How serious is the problem of sexual violence against women here in the Czech Republic?

“I think it is more or less the same all around the world. The number says that every tenth woman experiences sexual violence during her lifetime, which is about 7,000 rapes per year. Some studies suggest there are about 12,000 rapes.

“However, only around 700 cases are reported to the police. If we look at sexual harassment around 50 percent of Czech females have this experience.”

Is it more or less the same as in other EU countries?

“We as Czechs are still just opening the debate on the topic. It is still quite often seen as something radical to speak about it. We also very often think that it is something that doesn’t concern us and it is done by some foreigners, low-class, uneducated people.

“To speak about gender-based violence is still seen as some kind of radical concept.”

“We also focus very much on the victims, but don’t focus on the perpetrators, which is much more important. According to statistics, between six to eight percent of Czech men commit rape during their lifetime, which is quite a high number.

“There is also the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe treaty about gender-based and domestic violence. It has been implemented and ratified in almost every European country.

“However, Czech politicians are not willing to pass it and support it. And there is part of the society which is really against it based on some ultra-conservative view ion that topic.”

Why do you think that this issue is still considered largely taboo in the Czech Republic?

“I think it’s very complex and complicated. First of all, I think it is still seen as some feminist issue and feminism is not really appreciated in the Czech Republic.

“To speak about gender-based violence or sexual violence or even harassment is seen as some kind of radical, wester or U.S. concept. Also, lots of people are feeling threatened by it, I think.

“We even see it during our workshops where we work with adults. Sometimes they realize that have done something that wasn’t OK in the past, maybe they pushed somebody to have sex with them, and it is really hard for them to acknowledge it.

“So I think there are a lot of people who are afraid to look back in their past to see if they haven’t done anything bad.”

So when you hold workshops for school kids and adults, do you see a difference between the younger and older generations?

“Older people are those who usually come voluntarily, so they tend to be quite open. But even among school kids there are differences between, let’s say, 14- and 17-year-olds.

Illustrative photo: Leon israel, CC BY-SA 4.0
“I think the younger kids can see what is good and what is bad and it is very simple to recognize it and label it. As they get older, they get into the stereotypes we all have and it is much more complicated to speak about it with them and discover the myths they share.

“But they are still quite open to think about those things. As the people get older, they live longer in those stereotypes, so it is much harder to combat them or to recognize that they did something that wasn’t right.”

So would you say it is important to start education children at an early age?

“Definitely. The sooner you start the better. I also think it is very important to speak about it before they actually start with sexual lives.”

One of your first campaigns was called Když nechceš, tak nechceš, which could be translated as No Means No and focused on victims of sexual violence. It allowed people to anonymously share their experience with rape or sexual harassment.

“With this campaign we wanted to point out that rape doesn’t happen outside, where some creep attacks you. But it often happens within an intimate relationship, between colleagues or friends or people who know each other.

“We built the campaign on the story of a couple which gets into fight and the guy wants to make it right by pushing the girl into sex against her will.”

“And lots of girls were very enthusiastic about the campaign because they could relate to it. We also heard from girls who experienced the same thing but they didn’t know they could call it a rape. So we assured them that they were right to feel the way they did.”

You have recently launched a campaign called Respekt is sexy, aimed at creating safer nightlife for women, aimed at making bars and clubs a safe space for everyone… How does it work?

“When we were thinking about launching the campaign, it was a reaction to the Me Too campaign and the Czech society’s reaction to it. People often questioned why these women didn’t speak up earlier. So we wanted to offer them a platform where they could complain in the real time, when it was happening, and ask for help.

“We are creating a network of bars and clubs which don’t tolerate sexual harassment on their premises.”

“The project has two parts. First of all, we are trying to promote respect as something hot and harassment as something which isn’t hot.

“We are also creating a network of bars and clubs which don’t tolerate sexual harassment on their premises and we are training their staff to know how to react if someone asks them for help or if they see something and they feel they should intervene.

“In the beginning it wasn’t easy to get them on board but at the moment we have some twenty bars around the country. So I think we are reaching out to people who wouldn’t normally think about these topics.”

You have just received the Woman in Youth Activism Award, you were shortlisted alongside the world-famous Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. What does it mean for you, receiving this accolade?

“I feel really honoured, but most of all, it is an important message for all my co-workers, that our works is valued.

“It is not always easy in the Czech Republic. We have lots of support, but we also have lost of haters.

“So to see that even on the European level people see our work as important is a positive message for us that we should continue in our work, even if it is hard sometimes.”