*The photos in this piece are products of the author’s street photography. They are not the persons being referred to in this story.
Two cans of corned beef, a pack of instant coffee, toilet paper rolls, a kilo of detergent, a whistle. On that seemingly ordinary afternoon in Baguio City, the supermarket cashier wasn’t the only one scanning the goods as I lined to pay. I noticed a man eyeing me from head to toe. He then wolf-whistled, albeit poorly.
I quipped, “Di ka naman marunong sumipol. At ‘di maganda yang ginagawa mo.” He looked away and hurriedly left.
Whether it was shame or surprise that prompted him to look away, I wonder, how many more whistles will it take before he realizes that this behavior classifies as sexual harassment?
“Ma’am, your change,” said the cashier as she handed me some coins while the bagger placed my groceries in the paper bag, I recognized my own fury. I was just whistled at, I do not like it and I told him so.
I know I am not alone in experiencing public sexual harassment. So many other women and girls do. And this truth is no whistling matter.
Harassment happens anywhere — on the streets, in public transportation, while walking on an overpass
StopStreetHarassment.Org defines sexual harassment in street and public spaces as “unwanted comments, gestures and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent, and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”
These include catcalling, wolf-whistling, unwanted invitations, misogynistic and sexist slurs, persistent uninvited comments or gestures on a person’s appearance, relentless requests for personal details. According to Safe Street, Public and Online Spaces Act, the act likely results in “an invasion of the victim’s sense of personal safety, regardless of the motive for committing such action or remarks.”
Such forms of harassment have become commonplace for many women that something as mundane as grocery shopping can feel so unsafe.
And so does walking home at 10 p.m. along Recto in Manila.
Cathy* was crossing a poorly-lit overpass when a man coming from the opposite direction casually touched her crotch. She screamed, and another man walking just a few meters behind the predator came to the rescue with some martial arts. That wasn’t a scene from a Jackie Chan movie, but a real occurrence near Recto Isetan.
“Scary at nakakainis,” Cathy shared. “Law student pa lang ako that time, taking up night classes. After that incident, I always walked with a classmate.”
One might tell Cathy to avoid dark places altogether but that shifts the blame from the predator to the victim. Harassment happens whenever, wherever – in the dark, under fluorescent lights, even in broad daylight. A 2016 Safe Cities Baseline Study conducted in Quezon City found that 70% of sexual harassment in streets and public places occur during the day, between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Women on autopilot are women on their guard
Like in an afternoon of window shopping in Glorietta, Makati.
For 28-year-old Pat*, there’s nothing more eye-catching than new titles lining the bookstore window display at the mall. A middle-aged man wearing golf pants and a fancy polo shirt whistled at her.
“It seems money can’t buy manners,” Pat said, She also left her own manners behind and gave him the middle finger. “I felt disgusted but mostly annoyed. Sometimes I just don’t want to wear shorts in public, but if I were wearing pants, it won’t make him any less of a pervert.” she said.
Even wearing a “decent” office skirt while riding a jam-packed FX (public utility vehicle) does not ward off harassment.
Tired from work, twenty-something Cams* just wanted to go home and recharge. It seems though that the man seated in front of her was getting all comfortable with her skirt, obviously taking pictures. When all the passengers alighted the FX, she used the string of her company ID to strangle the guy, taking him to the nearest guard.
“Nakakapagod na palaging maging on your toes, on your guard. Nakaka-shock na ang lakas ng loob niyang gawin ‘yun sa harap ko, as if naman hindi ko kita. Siguradong alam niya na nakikita ko. Anong tingin niya, helpless ako, at tatanggapin ko lang yung ginagawa niya?”
It is not usual for women confront their predators because not everyone is brave enough. In fact, one in two women do nothing after they are harassed, notes the Quezon City 2016 baseline study.
Ogling is a form of harassment
Maybe that’s what two guys were thinking in a crowded restaurant in Katipunan.
As 16-year-old Marie* was enjoying her lunch— tacos with a friend in a crowded Filipino-Mexican restaurant— two male staff a few meters away were enjoying themselves as well, peering under her table in obvious desperation to get a glimpse of whatever’s under her dress.
The female customer next to Marie’s table saw what was happening and she confronted the men. One of the guys reasoned, “Normal lang naman po yun, ma’am.” Marie felt paralyzed and shocked, but thanked the lady who intervened. Fortunately, the women had some connection with the owners of the restaurant so she contacted them. The next day, one of the owners sent a message saying that the two staff were fired.
If only this type of quick resolution happens all the time, but harassment in public spaces and in the streets involves an element of transience, as 70% of street harassments are committed by complete strangers.
Chi Laigo-Vallido, director for programs and advocacy of The Forum for Family Planning and Development, says there is an anti-sexual harassment law in the Philippines but is limited to workplaces and schools. “Under this law, the perpetrators are the boss, teacher or officemate. In the streets, harassers are random people like fellow commuters, strangers who get empowered each time we allow them to catcall. Public spaces harassment requires a different law.”
Laigo-Vallido is among rights advocates relentlessly working on the passage of laws penalizing gender-based harassment in streets and public spaces.
Street harassment’s element of transience paved the way for the creation of laws penalizing this type of harassment
Since the Anti-Catcalling Ordinance in Quezon City took effect in 2016, predators and violators of the law have been reprimanded: a garbage collector fired, two police officers faced charges, a construction worker jailed. QCPD Police director Brig. Gen. Joselito Esquivel Jr. encouraged women to report incidents of street and public spaces harassment, but falls short of encouraging men to stop harassment in the first place.
In 2018, Manila passed its Safe City for Women and Girls Ordinance. In Baguio City, the Safe Streets and Public Spaces Ordinance is awaiting second reading.
The Safe Spaces Act, authored by Senator Risa Hontiveros, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Women, has lapsed into law on April 21 after President Rodrigo Duterte did not act on a bicameral conference committee report ratified in February.
The Safe Spaces Act, also called the “Bawal Bastos Law,” imposes hefty penalties for “any unwanted and uninvited sexual actions or remarks against any person” in public spaces, including acts like “catcalling, wolf-whistling, unwanted invitations, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and sexist slurs, sexual comments and suggestions, public masturbation or flashing of private parts, groping, or any advances, whether verbal or physical, that are unwanted and threaten one’s sense of personal space and physical safety.”
Hontiveros said the law is not only for women and LGBTs as it also protects men and boys from sexist acts and behavior. “The law is not a measure to punish men. It actually protects men from capitulating to sexist acts and gender bigotry by holding such deeds accountable. It is a policy that aims to effect positive behavioral changes in society. And in this effort, we believe men will play a big part in this positive transformation,” Hontiveros said in a statement.
As more laws are penned, pinned, and passed, we rejoice. In an article published on worldbank.org, Paula Tavares sums it up succinctly: “While laws against sexual harassment are not a cure, they are an important first step.”
*names have been changed