Quezon City will impose fines between $20-200 and jail sentences of up to a year for sexual harassment in public spaces. The 2016 law, enacted in partnership with UN Women’s Safe Cities initiative, aims to deter men from verbal abuse, stalking, groping, indecent exposure and physical violence, all of which are prevalent in Manila’s biggest metropolis. Three in five women in Quezon City have faced unwanted sexual advances in public, and one in seven men admit to harassing women at least once per week.
Results & Impact
UN Women and the Quezon City government worked together to pass the Safe Streets and Public Spaces law, which imposes fines and jail time for street harassment. As of September 2017, 26 women had reported cases of street harassment to the police.
The Government of Quezon City, UN Women
Women have two options for reporting offenders: they can call a hotline manned by police, or file a complaint in-person at their local precinct, some of which have women-only desks. UN Women will train Quezon City police on how to respond to harassment, with an emphasis on sensitivity training and prosecution protocols. Officers will also arrest offenders at the scene of the crime.
Quezon City, the largest of the 16 cities that make up the capital region of Manila
Women and girls, men and boys, city dwellers
Cost & Value
Running since March 2016
As the law is still new, the Quezon City government and UN Women are still refining the process of reporting crimes and enforcing penalties. Aside from logistical challenges, the question of whether imposing fines and jail sentences can correct sexual harassment remains. Critics say that one-off punishments fail to address the larger systemic problem of sexism, which may be better addressed by widespread education campaigns. Others worry that such laws impinge on free speech, and could be expanded to prevent other “unwanted” speech in public spaces, which could affect homeless people, protesters or even volunteer street canvassers.
Laws against street harassment exist in Belgium, Portugal, Peru, New Zealand, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Quito, Ecuador, and Nottinghamshire, UK. In addition to Quezon City, UN Women's Safe Cities program also runs in Cairo, New Delhi, Kigali, Port Moresby, Quito, Cape Town, Mexico City, Rabat, Marrakech, Medellin, Dushanbe, Rio de Janeiro, Tegucigalpa, Dublin, Winnipeg, Reykjavik, Sakai, New York, and Brussels.
The largest city in the Philippines has made catcalling, wolf-whistling and other unwanted sexual advances illegal in public spaces.
Quezon City – one of the 16 urban areas that make up Manila, the capital region of the country – is the first Filipino metropolis to join UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces campaign, which 20 other cities have signed on to. Through the program, UN Women works with local and national governments, women’s groups and community partners to end sexual violence and harassment against women and girls.
Quezon City has taken the partnership a step further by passing the Safe Streets and Public Spaces law, which imposes fines and jail time for street harassment.
“Sexual harassment is severely normalised in the Philippines. We want to send a message that it’s not right and should not be tolerated, especially to men who see it as a compliment. The message for young men and boys is that women have a right not to be sexually harassed – to be free from fear,” said Chang Jordan, the National Project Officer for Safe Cities Metro Manila.
“There’s pervasive victim-blaming – many say it’s the fault of the women for wearing skimpy clothes”
The city ordinance was signed into law in March 2016 as a clause of Quezon City’s Gender and Development Code. The city will sanction offenders between $20 and $200 for verbal abuse, rude gestures, touching, groping, stalking, indecent exposure, physical violence or any other advances that harm or embarrass women. Offenders may also face jail time: between one month (for non-physical offences) and a year (for physical and/or violent actions).
According to a survey of 800 people conducted for the Safe Cities program, three in five women in Quezon City have experienced sexual harassment in their lives. One in seven of these women endure it once a week or more – and the same proportion of men admitted to sexually harassing women at least once a week.
“There’s pervasive victim-blaming – many say it’s the fault of the women for wearing skimpy clothes. During the drafting of the local law, there were reactions like, ‘Why penalise the men?’ It’s mostly those reactions we get – even from women,” said Chang.
“It’s deeply entrenched in the beliefs and attitudes of both men and women: sexual harassment is seen as something trivial that shouldn’t be taken seriously,” she said.
But for women, the consequences are serious. One in three of the women who said they had experienced sexual harassment witnessed public exposure or masturbation or were groped. This often happens on public transit. One 19-year-old student told UN Safe Cities officers: “I was in a bus to go to school when I noticed the chair was shaking… he was masturbating beside me. I was struck with fear – I could not say or do anything. I was afraid he had a knife and I feared for my life.”
As of September 2017, 26 women had reported cases of street harassment to the police. Women have two options for reporting offenders: they can call a hotline manned by police, or file a complaint in-person at their local precinct. As the law is new, the city and UN Women are still refining the process of reporting and enforcing penalties. For this reason, the 26 cases are still pending prosecution.
“It’s deeply entrenched in both men and women: sexual harassment is seen as something trivial that shouldn’t be taken seriously”
In the meantime, UN Women will train Quezon City police on how to respond to harassment. The training sessions will focus on teaching officers how to respond with sensitivity to women who report harassment, as well as the protocol for prosecution. In some precincts, women will be able to file complaints at women-only desks. Officers will also arrest offenders at the scene.
Prior to introducing the law, the Safe Cities program focused on engaging locals on the issue with media campaigns, special news programs and documentaries on street harassment. They draw on the fear that limits women’s freedom of mobility in Manila.
“We see sexual harassment in public spaces worldwide, and there needs to be more attention paid to it,” said Jordan. “Some people think it’s normal, that’s it’s a compliment and should be tolerated. We’re saying ‘No, we have to end it’. And I think we’re getting there.”
It can be difficult to enforce laws against objectifying women when “some people” includes the country’s president. In June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte wolf-whistled at a female reporter at a press conference, later insisting that there was nothing sexual in it – he was simply giving her a compliment. In November 2016, he publicly joked about ogling his own vice president’s legs. When the head of the country publicly objectifies women, local government may have a hard time persuading citizens to change their own behaviour.
There are other criticisms of street harassment laws to take into account. Some say that punishing select offenders does little to address the systemic problem, which could be better addressed by focusing on widespread education. Others contend that the fines could disproportionately affect homeless men and people from low-income backgrounds. In some countries, such laws could exacerbate racial discrimination from the police.
Then there’s the question of free speech protections: laws that ban harassment could set a precedent that trickles down to any sort of “unwanted” public speech, which could affect panhandlers, protesters or even volunteer street canvassers.
Laws against street harassment exist in Belgium, Portugal, Peru, New Zealand, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Quito, Ecuador and Nottinghamshire, UK. Penalties vary from fines of $1,000 to 12 years in jail.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Benedic Belen)