UN Women: Frozen? No more!
Julie Cabatit-Alegre (The Philippine Star) - March 5, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Alma (not her real name) had just settled on the seat inside a jeepney on her way home from work when she suddenly felt a hand inside her jeans. The man seated beside her pretended as if nothing was happening while he was molesting her. She was too shocked to react, and even the other passengers inside the jeepney did not do anything until the man left. She was frozen in fear and embarrassment. 

This is a true story and sadly it’s happening too often to too many women out  there who, like Alma continue to bear the burden of keeping their ugly secret to themselves. Victims of sexual harassment are traumatized and unable to talk about the harrowing experience even after many years have passed.

Mercy (not her real name), now 40 years old, was only 13 when she fell victim to  sexual harassment. She was helping an old man, their neighbor, in his house when he made her sit on his lap and grabbed her breasts. All she could do was run home and never told anybody about it.

“We are the first ones she ever talked to about it after all these years,” says Katherine Belen, national project officer for the Safe Cities Programme of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), which conducted a pilot  study on the incidence and prevalence of sexual harassment against women in public spaces. FGDs (focus group discussions) were conducted in two barangays in Quezon City through  a four-month period, from July to October last year.

The Social Weather Station did a quantitative survey. “There’s been no other  research that has been done of this kind in the country before,” Belen says. “All statistics that are available are on domestic violence or rape. Most people have a limited understanding of the scope of sexual violence.  Verbal harassment or non-contact harassment are not seen as a violation of women’s rights and a form of violence against women.”

Sexual harassment covers a wide continuum, from seemingly trivial annoyances to more severe forms — from wolf-whistling, catcalling, lewd language and sexual innuendoes meant to demean or humiliate, stalking, offensive hand or body gestures, lascivious acts, public exposure and flashing, to severe forms of rubbing and groping, grabbing and sexual assault — short of rape. Many of these incidents occur in public spaces, on city streets while the women or girls are walking to or from the market or school; at transportation terminals while they are waiting  for a ride; or inside crowded buses or the MRT.

 “Every woman we interviewed had experienced some form of harassment or violence  at least once in their life, or they knew someone who had,” Belen says. And yet, these are under-reported, due to shame or fear. Some would simply avoid the inconvenience or would have apprehensions about not being believed or even being blamed. They are not taken  seriously or  no one simply cares.

“We need a change in attitude and behavior,” Belen says. “We need a change in the mindset on how women are perceived as sex objects.” They also need more legal protection. There’s a nfor more stringent laws and stiffer penalties. “There’s the law on acts of lasciviousness with a fine of only P200. It’s very negligible,” Belen remarks. “The Quezon City council passed an amendment to the ordinance providing for a city gender and development code, increasing the fine for sexual harassment from between P1,000 and P5,000. For the first time, it specifies sexual harassment in public spaces, where before, the law applied only for employment, education and training environments. Before, anything that happens outside the work setting or school setting was not covered, unless it is rape, which is covered by the anti-rape law.”

Inadequate physical as well as social infrastructure also needs to be addressed. “This  includes the lack of street lights in barangays. If there’s no lighting, the risk increases,” Belen observed. “We also need social infrastructure. We need communities to be involved in the process, because lights alone will not be enough to solve the problem unless the people are given the capability to act against harassment in their communities. We want a change in behavior both in the men as well as the women in terms of increasing reporting and the involvement of bystanders, that they will actually do something.”

In 2014, the Spanish Cooperation for International Development (AECID) provided funding for UN Women to partner with the Quezon City local government to enable them to adopt the UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Initiative. Belen explains,  “The Safe Cities Programme is a global program that focuses on stopping street harassment and sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces. We are currently running this in 24 cities around the world in partnership with local governments and mayors’ offices. In the Philippines, Quezon City is the first city to express interest and has taken the lead in Metro Manila. We expect other cities to eventually follow.”              

The Save Cities Quezon City Programme will hold back-to-back events to kick-off celebrations in March as National Women’s Month. A media event titled “Lighting the Way  to Safe Cities” will take place on the eve of  International Women’s Day, on March 7 at 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Quezon City Memorial Circle. The results of the very first baseline study by SWS titled “How Safe are Women in our City Streets” will be presented. 1,000 lanterns will be released to light up the night sky.

 “The visual spectacle will symbolize the dedication and commitment of all participants as well as the QC local government in making the city a safer place for women and girls,” Belen noted. “Through this event, we aim to promote greater awareness of the lack of security that women feel as they move about in public spaces, and how everyone in society has a critical role in stopping street harassment and sexual violence against women and girls in our cities.”

There will also be a photo exhibit and sale at the QCX Museum at the Quezon City Memorial Circle, which will run from March 8 to 15 featuring photos of people cramped inside trains, dark terminals and other places in the city, posing the question: “How safe are women in our city streets?”

“Sexual harassment is not a trivial offense. It’s a violation of women’s rights,”  Belen says. “Their freedom of movement is restricted when they need to take a different route and have to pay more for transportation going home or limit the hours they spend out at night because it’s unsafe. Women should be able to choose where they want to live, where to go to school, to work,  or even where to go for recreation. But it’s not the case if they always have this fear at the back of their mind.”

“The challenge is, how do you solve a problem that is not yet a recognized problem?” Belen observes. “No woman we talked to told us that it did not matter. What they said is, it’s about time.”

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