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Are Street-Harassment Laws Necessary?

By: Guest Contributor - Apr 22, 2015, 8:15 am

Victims Need Legal Recourse

By Pamela Olivares

The Observatory Against Street Harassment of Chile (OCAC Chile) promotes legislation on street sexual harassment, a serious social issue we have been denouncing since 2013. This year, in our second research paper on the subject, our cause was verified by Chilean citizens.

In the past year, three out of four people experienced street harassment, and young women even more so. Furthermore, victims and witnesses of this phenomena are not indifferent: over 90 percent believe it is necessary to punish these attacks. The problem is real and undeniable.

There is currently no legal instrument to denounce and protect victims of street harassment in Chile. We therefore propose to incorporate these attacks into the country’s legislation, from its mild to more severe manifestations, because we understand this form of violence as a whole, and the legislation should do the same.

Every non-consensual bodily contact of a sexual nature shall be considered a crime. Street harassment without physical contact, such as sexual phrases, taking pictures, masturbation, or stalking shall be an offense.

In the bill, we propose a maximum penalty of around US$1,400 for offenses, and 540 days in prison for crimes. Thus, it’s clear that no one will go to jail for “flattering” someone else. That fear is just a myth.

The main purpose of the criminalization of these activities is to empower the victims in need of support after being attacked. Currently, if a person goes to the Prosecutor’s Office, the investigative police (PDI), or the Carabineros to denounce street harassment, he’ll receive no protection: the police cannot initiate prosecutions for offenses or crimes that do not exist. A Street Respect Act would thus be a tool for victims, be they men or women.

OCAC Chile also believes in the power of awareness and education. We have proposed alternative sanctions, to avoid criminalizing the act and depriving people of their liberty without just cause. Fines and custodial sentences may be replaced by attending at least five street-harassment awareness sessions. Further, for cases that lack outright physical harassment (aggressive sexual remarks or intimidating approaches), the fine may be replaced with a public apology.

We thus want prison to be the last option, applied only to cases of recidivism, or when the aggression violates the rights of those who have difficulty defending themselves, such as children or pregnant women.

Moreover, to make the shift from street harassment to street respect in the healthiest possible way, OCAC Chile has sent the president a set of recommendations for promoting educational and preventive policies. For example, we recommend that police officers and the PDI be trained regarding street harassment, since these officers will handle the complaints.

For all these reasons, the application of the Street Respect Act would be a tremendous step forward, essential for progress towards safe public spaces. With this, freedom from unwanted sexual attention will be guaranteed, not only for women, teenagers, and children, but for all citizens.

Pamela Olivares holds a law degree and volunteers in the legal division of Chile’s Observatory Against Street Harassment. Follow @ocacchile.

Education to Combat Harassment

By Ana Belén Cordero

EspañolNowadays, the debate over insecurity and violence in the streets is widespread, but sadly necessary.

In an effort to increase regulation and use laws to deter potential aggressors, several bills in multiple Latin American countries seek to reduce street harassment by defining it and punishing it.

These initiatives often treat public transportation as the place where harassment is most likely to take place, particularly during rush hour, when they contain a greater number of passengers. Among the policy initiatives that have been implemented are “pink buses” or “private cars” which separate women from unwanted male attention.

These actions, rather than generating a significant reduction in harassment cases, only worsen the problem. Men feel discriminated against, and especially women — such policies are segregationist, recalling those once applied against Afro-American communities in the United States or South Africa. They create “safe spaces” within these buses alone, leaving women who choose to travel via normal public transport to fend for themselves.

“Pink bus” policies also suggest that only women are subject to harassment by men, ignoring aggressive sexual behaviour perpetrated by women against men, women against women, and men against men.

Moreover, separating the sexes serves to underline what is already a discriminatory culture, insisting on separate treatment of men and women, and confirming the world-view that lies behind many acts of harassment: that women are second-class citizens, fundamentally different to men.

Instead, we need to boost the plural and respectful coexistence that should exist in the cities of the world. Punishing those caught delivering an obscene compliment or groping someone may exercise a superficial “educational” effect. But it will do nothing to deter or reform the attitudes of those who don’t keep up to date with the law.

The key to solving harassment lies in education: at home, in schools, and through public campaigns. Criminal law, by contrast should be reserved as a last resort in educating individuals about how to behave in a society. Many national criminal codes already include sexual harassment as a crime, and developing further laws on the matter will only overload the statute book.

By all means, let’s call out street harassment when we see it, and if punishments are already in force, then use them extremely selectively. But let’s stop pretending that the problem will be solved by anything other than encouraging deeper changes in how we view and interact with others in society.

Ana Belén Cordero is an Ecuadorian lawyer and political activist, and holds master’s degrees in Business Law from San Francisco University of Quito (USFQ) and Political Management from George Washington University (GWU). Follow her @anitacebelinco.

Are Street-Harassment Laws Necessary?