Why Do So Many Live in Fear?

A CLIMATE of fear envelops mankind. It is an invisible but discernible mood, an atmosphere that affects nearly everyone, even though it often goes unnoticed. What has produced this atmosphere? What makes some people feel frightened when they leave the house? Why do many feel unsafe at work? Why do many fear for the safety of their children? What dangers make people fearful in their own home?

Of course, there are numerous causes of fear, but we will consider four dangers that can affect people constantly​—urban violence, sexual harassment, rape, and domestic violence. First, let us examine violence in cities. The subject is especially timely now because almost half of mankind live in urban areas.

Dangers in Cities

The first cities were probably built for protection, but many people now see cities as danger zones. What was once seen as sheltering has become frightening. Crowded city centers provide ideal conditions for muggers, and in some cities, poor neighborhoods with few streetlights and few policemen are dangerous to enter.

 The fears are not always exaggerated; a frightening number of people die violently. According to a World Health Organization report, worldwide 1.6 million people die as a result of violence each year. In Africa, out of every 100,000 people, each year an estimated 60.9 die a violent death.

Many people, places, and organizations that were considered safe are now seen as a threat to safety. For example, many playgrounds, schools, and shops are now considered frightening high-crime areas. In some cases religious leaders, social workers, and teachers​—people who should provide protection—​have betrayed the confidence placed in them. Reports that some commit child abuse make parents hesitant to leave children in the care of others. Police are supposed to protect people, but in some cities police corruption and abuse of power are commonplace. As for “security” forces, in some countries memories linger of civil wars in which loved ones disappeared after being taken by the military. In various parts of the world, therefore, instead of easing the climate of fear, police and soldiers have added to it.

The book Citizens of Fear​—Urban Violence in Latin America says: “Citizens of Latin American capitals live in constant fear, amidst some of the most dangerous conditions on earth. In that vast region, about 140 thousand people die violently each year, and one out of three citizens has been directly or indirectly victimized by violence.” In other parts of the earth too, political protests occur frequently in capital cities. When such protests become violent, many individuals take advantage of the disorder to loot stores, with general chaos ensuing. People doing business in the city can easily find themselves trapped by angry crowds.

In many countries a vast gulf has developed between the living standards of the rich and the poor, resulting in simmering resentment. Hordes of people who feel deprived of basic needs have ransacked the exclusive neighborhoods of the elite. That hasn’t happened yet in some cities, but the situation seems like a ticking time bomb that is bound to explode​—no one knows when.

The threat of thieves and revolutionaries would seem enough, but there are other causes of anxiety adding to the climate of fear.

The Horror of Sexual Harassment

For millions of women, whistles, obscene gestures, and lecherous stares are a daily nightmare. Says Asia Week: “Surveys reveal that one Japanese woman in four has been sexually assaulted in public, with 90% of the incidents taking place in trains. . . . Only 2% of victims take any action when mauled. Most cited fear of their molesters’ response as the main reason for their silence.”

Sexual harassment has increased dramatically in India, where the practice is called eve-teasing. “Whenever a woman steps out of her house she becomes scared,” explains a journalist there. “At every step she faces taunting humiliation and receives indecent remarks.”  From an Indian city where residents are proud of their relatively safe streets comes the report: “[This city’s] problem is not on the streets but in its offices. . . . 35 per cent of women surveyed claimed they had experienced sexual harassment at their workplace. . . . 52 per cent of women said due to fear of sexual harassment at the workplace they prefer to take up lowly paying jobs . . . where they have to deal [only] with women.”

Fear of Rape

Women have more to fear than just the loss of their dignity. Sexual harassment sometimes implies a threat of rape. Understandably, rape is a crime that many women fear even more than murder. A woman may suddenly find herself alone in a place where she fears she may be raped. She may see a man she doesn’t know or doesn’t trust. Her heart races as she frantically tries to assess the situation. ‘What will he do? Where can I run? Should I scream?’ Frequent experiences like that exact a cumulative toll on women’s health. Many people choose not to live in an urban area or prefer not to visit cities because of such fears.

“The fear, the anxiety, the distress are all a daily part of urban life for many women,” says the book The Female Fear. “Women’s fear of rape is a sense that one must always be on guard, vigilant and alert, a feeling that causes a woman to tighten with anxiety if someone is walking too closely behind her, especially at night. It is . . . a feeling women are never totally free of.”

Violent crime affects many women. However, fear of violence affects almost all women. The State of World Population 2000, a United Nations publication, says: “Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way​—most often by someone she knows.” Has the climate of fear penetrated even further? How common is it for people to live in fear in their own home?

Fear of Violence at Home

The private practice of beating wives into submission is a gross injustice carried out worldwide​—and only recently recognized as a crime in many places. In India one report claimed that “at least 45 per cent of Indian women are slapped, kicked or beaten by their husbands.” Spousal abuse is a serious global health hazard. Concerning women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that more are injured by domestic violence than by car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Domestic violence is therefore much more serious than an occasional argument that develops into an exchange of slaps. Many women live in fear of injury and death at home. A national survey in Canada showed that a third of women who had suffered domestic violence had at some time feared for their lives. In the United States, two researchers concluded: “Home is the most dangerous place for women and frequently the site of cruelty and torture.”

Why are so many women locked into such dangerous relationships? Many people wonder: ‘Why don’t they seek help? Why don’t they leave?’ The answer, in most cases, is fear. Fear has been called the distinguishing feature of domestic violence. Abusive men typically control their wives with violence and then silence them with death threats. Even if the battered wife does find the courage to seek help, she may not always receive it.  There is a tendency, even among people who abhor other forms of violence, to trivialize, ignore, or justify violence perpetrated by husbands. Also, outside his home the abusive husband may appear to be charming. Often friends cannot believe that he beats his wife. Disbelieved, and with nowhere to run, many abused wives feel that they have no alternative but to live in constant fear.

Battered women who do leave sometimes become victims of another type of harassment called stalking. In North America a recent study of over a thousand women in the state of Louisiana showed that 15 percent of them reported that they had been stalked. Imagine their fear. Someone who has threatened you continues to turn up wherever you go. He phones you, follows you, watches you, and waits for you. He may even kill your pet. It is a campaign of terror!

You may not be a victim of that sort of fear. But to what extent does fear affect what you do each day?

Does Fear Affect the Way You Act?

Living as we do with fear all around us, we may be unaware of how many of our daily decisions are governed by fear. How often does fear affect the way you act?

Has fear of violence led you or your family to avoid arriving home at night alone? Does fear affect your use of public transportation? Have the dangers of commuting affected what employment you take? Or has fear of fellow workers or fear of people you would have to deal with affected your choice of work? Has fear affected your social life or the entertainment you can enjoy? Perhaps fear of meeting unruly drunks and crowds has dissuaded you from going to certain sports events and concerts? Has fear affected what you do at school? For many parents, fear of their children becoming delinquents is a factor influencing their choice of schools, and fear certainly explains why many of them choose to pick up their children who could walk home or use public transportation.

Indeed, mankind lives in a climate of fear. But fear of violence has been with us for most of mankind’s history. Can we really expect anything different? Is freedom from fear just a dream? Or is there solid reason to expect a future in which no one will fear anything bad?