In a unanimous vote, the city of Buenos Aires has enacted a law making public sexual harassment illegal in hopes of diminishing gender-based violence.
Photo by Boris Jovanovic via Stocksy
Ju Santarosa Cobos was 11 the first time a group of older men catcalled her on the street. She was biking by a construction site in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and some of the men working there yelled vulgar comments about her body. When she got home, her dad, who had been driving behind her, warned her to never respond to those types of comments.
"He was basically telling me to keep quiet and not incite the fury of my harasser, making me feel bad instead of placing the blame on the person who did it," Santarosa Cobos said.
As the founder of Acción Respeto, a group dedicated to ridding Argentina of street harassment, Santarosa Cobos has been working for years to shift this paradigm. Today, her organization has just seen its most substantial victory yet: The city of Buenos Aires has just passed a bill outlawing street harassment in the South American city.
The law takes both a punitive and educational approach. It creates an easy way for women to report street harassment as a crime and requires police to take the situation seriously, which has not always been the case in Argentina. Proven cat-callers could be slammed with small fines or court-mandated public service. The legislation also creates educational campaigns within the health, education, and transportation ministries that would teach Argentines that any comment or interaction in the street still requires a woman's consent. These programs will also emphasize how to spot street harassment and intervene on a victim's behalf.
"We felt it was necessary to bring awareness to a common occurrence that affects the daily life of thousands of women," Congressman Pablo Ferreyra, who introduced the bill, wrote on Twitter after the law was passed with no legislator voting against it and just two abstaining.
"I celebrate this vote that we worked on with other legislators," he added.
This is a behavior that you thought was normal until now, but [the state] is now telling you that it's a type of violence.
This legislation is the most recent, and arguably most concrete, victory for Argentina's rapidly growing feminist movement. The issue of gender violence has come into the national spotlight in the country with the rise of the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement, which first started in June 2015. The group's first protest saw thousands gather to demonstrate against femicide, or the murder of a woman in connection to her gender. In November, they shut down the streets of Buenos Aires again after the brutal murder of 16-year-old Lucia Perez.
According to Santarosa Cobos, any society that doesn't value women's lives will have to reckon with misogynistic violence: Domestic assault, rape and sexual assault, and femicide are the most extreme manifestations of this. As she sees it, other forms of gender violence, such as street harassment, are all part of a broader culture that normalizes sexism and denigrates women.
While some sectors of Argentine society have embraced and loudly championed the fight for gender equality, others are slower to change their ways. In 2014, for instance, President Mauricio Macri dismissed street harassment, saying in an interview, "All women like catcalls, even if they tell them how great their ass is." (He later apologized after his daughter chastised him for his comments.) This sentiment lives on in within the Argentine political system, according to Ferreyra, who experienced pushback from his colleagues while working on getting the law approved.
Resistance to the law extends beyond the political sphere. "There must still be some room for chivalry and not everything needs to be demonized," said Buenos Aires native Julian Gutierrez, who recognizes that catcalls make women in his city feel unsafe, but wonders where the law leaves men who want to approach a woman flirtatiously.
Even those who recognize catcalling is a problem are skeptical that the law will have its desired effect, given law enforcement's lackluster record in dealing with gender violence. "In terms of fines, it would be difficult to put this into practice, at least in Buenos Aires. If the police sometimes don't make a report for women who suffer domestic violence, I think they would take even less reports for street harassment," said another Buenos Aires resident, Gabriela Raidé.
But Santarosa Cobos believes that the law sets an important precedent. "More important than the ability to report street harassment is the deterrent effect," she said. "This is a behavior that you thought was normal until now, but [the state] is now telling you that it's a type of violence and it's going to be penalized."