Women and their children on the street in Manila. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Under new legislation, catcalling is a punishable offense.

The streets of Manila are a dangerous space for women. The scenes are, unfortunately, recognizable from other urban environments: women get catcalled on sidewalks, elicit wolf-whistles on eskinitas, or “alleys,” receive lewd stares in public markets, or are groped on public transit. But when women in Manila recently spoke up, the government took notice.

Last year, two Facebook posts from women sharing their experiences of being catcalled in Manila went viral. One woman had noticed an uptick in catcalls and lewd stares when she wore dresses; in response, she posted a picture of herself in a cream dress with the words, “Is my dress provoking you?” written on it. In the accompanying post, she called for a change in culture, telling men: “It’s not about the way we dress; it’s about the way you look at us. Our bodies are not yours to look at and objectify.”

Another woman’s post showed a picture of her wearing jeans, ankle boots, and a top with elbow-length sleeves. With only her face, neck, and forearms visible, she still received catcalls. Her post went into detail about how catcalling makes her feel uncomfortable, scared, and angry. She wanted catcalling to be illegal and encouraged women to speak up. Catcalled in the Philippines, a community started last month, already has over 8,700 likes on Facebook.

In June, then President-elect Rodrigo Duterte received flak for whistling at a female reporter during a press conference. Duterte later shrugged off his actions, saying: “That is a freedom of expression. You cannot stop anybody from whistling. Whistling is not a sexual thing.”

These incidents have not gone unnoticed as lawmakers and city officials are starting to take action to make women feel safer on the streets. Quezon City, the largest and most populous city in Metro Manila, revised its Gender and Development Code on May 16 to include penalties for sexual harassment of women in public spaces. Catcalling and other verbal exchanges that embarrass, ridicule, or humiliate women carry a fine ranging from PHP 1,000 to PHP 5,000 (around $20 to $100 USD) or up to one month in jail. Stalking and making offensive gestures carry the same penalties. Physical sexual harassment, considered the most severe violation, is punishable with a fine of PHP 3,000 to PHP 5,000 and as much as a year in jail. Buenos Aires moved forward with similar legislation last year; in one U.K. city, sex-based harassment can be classified as a hate crime.

In Manila, the amendments were a result of the city’s partnership with UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, under the umbrella of their Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Initiative. Katherine Belen, the country program manager for the Safe Cities Metro Manila program, says that Quezon City is the first program site. “We have done a consultation with all 142 barangays [or “villages”] of Quezon City to develop the recommendations for the GAD [Gender and Development] Code,” says Belen. “Part of UN Women’s agenda is to make sure all Safe City programs have some sustainable results,” she adds. One concrete example, she says, is the new legislation to protect women in public spaces.

The difficulty of studying harassment

The Safe Cities Metro Manila program did a scoping study from July to September 2015, conducting focus group discussions and six audits in the communities of Bagong Silangan and Payatas, where researchers and barangay officials and security officers walked with a group of 20 to 25 women aged 14 to 65. The goal, Belen says, was to understand women’s experiences and the scope of the problem: what exacerbates it, and where? “The women narrated incidents of sexual harassment and identified areas in the barangay where there’s a high risk of this—whether because there’s lack of light and so on,” says Belen.

Social Weather Stations (SWS), a social survey institution in the Philippines, also conducted a survey as part of the Safe Cities Metro Manila baseline study on street sexual harassment in Quezon City. SWS interviewed 400 women from Bagong Silangan and Payatas about their street sexual harassment experiences. Preliminary results showed 3 in 5 women had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime. Results also showed 70 percent of sexual harassment incidents occurred during the day, and 58 percent happened along major roads or alleys.

But survey results showed 1 in 2 women didn’t report their harassment. “Victim blaming, especially for sexual harassment in public spaces, is prevalent,” says Belen. “Approximately half of the respondents somewhat feel it’s their fault. Some women fear telling their families because their parents might blame them, too,” she adds. Belen also says that the fleeting nature of the offense, particularly catcalling, makes it tricky to report.

Enforcing the law

Now, Safe Cities Metro Manila is focusing on training the police force to implement the new law. They’ve conducted trainings with the heads of divisions across the Quezon City police department, educating officers about sensitivity to these issues and protocol for reporting the offenses, Belen says. Street sexual harassment victims may file a complaint in women’s desks at police precincts and can also call the hotline set up by the city police department.

Another ongoing project is training tricycle drivers from different Tricycle Operators and Drivers Association (TODA) groups. “Because they’re also commonly reported as perpetrators of harassment, we’re working with TODA associations to raise awareness on the issue and hopefully change behavior about how women are seen as objects or amusement in the street,” says Belen.

There are plans to extend the Safe Cities program beyond Quezon City to other cities within Metro Manila. Belen says that in the next two years, Quezon City will take the lead in convening all local government units of Metro Manila and mentoring them as they develop their own programs. Ultimately, says Belen, the goal is to decrease the incidence of sexual harassment and violence in the first place. “That’s something we will see later down the line,” she says.

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