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Where are our safe spaces? |

Young Star

Where are our safe spaces?

Bea Amador - The Philippine Star
Where are our safe spaces?
One year after the Safe Spaces law was passed, we ask Senator Risa Hontiveros about what exactly it has achieved.

It’s a sad fact that, as a young woman in my early 20s, being sexually harassed in public places is pretty much the norm for me. As a kid, I’ve always been told to not talk to strange men, to be mindful of how I sit, to be careful around boys. Nevertheless, it didn’t really prevent me from getting harassed. I still got catcalled, still got groped in a cramped MRT, felt the gaze of men I didn’t know when all I really wanted was to peacefully walk from point A to point B.

This rampant sexual harassment has always been public knowledge, and it’s quite alarming how we’ve become somewhat desensitized to it. We got so used to telling women how to act and dress, instead of holding the perpetrators accountable for their actions.

A little over a month ago, conversations about sexual harassment were the trending topic on Twitter, after our very own police department released a graphic listing down how women should “act” in order to not get raped. Around that same time, a series of exposés posted by students from various universities and schools calling out teachers and professors about lewd acts committed to minors also came to light. In one of these exposés, a student from Bulacan State University Laboratory High School recounted how her computer science teacher would ask for sexual favors in exchange for an exemption from a project. Her story sparked other victims to tell their stories, unearthing a longstanding culture of sexual harassment in the school.

While the Safe Spaces law has already made big strides in ensuring that our public spaces are safer and free from sexual harassment (just think of the catcallers who have been jailed after being reported), it’s an uphill battle nevertheless. In order to better our society, these changes have to be inserted in the very institutions that hold power. We talked to Senator Risa Hontiveros, one of the main authors of the Safe Spaces Law, and asked how the law has fared so far, and what measures are being done to make sure that the idea of safe spaces turns into a reality.

Young STAR: Since the passing of the Safe Spaces Law last year, what changes have you seen in the overall number of sexual harassment cases in the country?

Sen. Risa Hontiveros: Reporting of cases is still a big challenge for the Safe Spaces Law, much like the reporting issues in crimes of sexual violence. There are a myriad of factors involved in victims not always coming forward — shame, trauma, distrust towards authorities, and many others. As of the moment, the availability of public data on cases of sexual harassment is still hard to ensure, which makes it difficult to assess just how pervasive and widespread the problem is.

What are the ongoing efforts that are geared towards making sure that the Safe Spaces Law is implemented?

Aside from the execution of the implementing rules and regulation (IRR), there are some efforts that complement it, one of which is the Safe Campuses Project of the Active Citizenship Foundation in partnership with the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives and select universities. The project aims to fight off harassment on campuses through various activities, such as establishing the Safe Space Desk, to which students and faculty can forward sexual harassment concerns.

The MMDA also reported their own initiative of installing CCTVs in strategic locations around Metro Manila with the hopes of deterring and apprehending sexual offenders. Additionally, the PNP has also made some effort on distributing Bawal Bastos Law infographics (which detail punishable acts and their corresponding penalties) to different communities online and on the ground.

There have been several reports recently about sexual harassment carried out by professors in schools and universities, and some professors have even been fired. How can we make sure that this culture of harassment stops?

One of the ways that educational institutions can eliminate a culture of harassment is to make it absolutely clear that sexual harassment is not tolerated in their communities. It is crucial that schools and universities are not permissive toward abusive behavior just as it is crucial that our schools create an environment that does not make students who report sexual harassment feel ashamed or degraded.

Administrators of these educational institutions should denounce sexual harassment not only through statements but also through concrete actions — when students report cases, they shouldn’t be dismissed; they should be heard, they should know they are supported. It is essential that there are clear policies that dictate how sexual harassment cases should be handled. Seeking accountability from the accused is also as important as providing support for the survivors of sexual harassment who were brave enough to come forward.

The PNP has also recently released statements perpetuating rape culture and victim blaming. Is there an ongoing program to make sure that police officers are educated about rape and sexual harassment?

In terms of gender-based harassment in streets and public spaces, the IRR of the Safe Spaces Law mandates the PNP and MMDA to ensure that their Anti-Sexual Harassment Enforcers (ASHE) undergo gender sensitivity training. This training should cover topics such as gender, sexual orientation, sources of gender discrimination, the roles of different institutions in society in perpetuating discrimination, and the different manifestations of discrimination, including sexual harassment.

However, training is not enough. The PNP leadership should also ensure that lessons from training do translate to how our officers protect and serve the public.

As frontliners in the fight against sexual harassment, police and security forces cannot and should not be of the disposition that sexual harassment cases can be caused by short and revealing clothes, as evidenced by a recent Facebook post from a police station. Behavior and pronouncements like those will become a barrier to sexual harassment reporting and contribute to, rather than alleviate, cases of harassment.

The PNP’s Gender and Development’s team should have a lengthy discussion with the PNP leadership since education on gender-based harassment is only the first step in dismantling outdated and dangerous notions about rape and sexual harassment; changing behavior and culture within the institution and around communities is the greater challenge.

In a time when even the president openly jokes about rape, how can we go beyond online discussions and trending hashtags to make sure that there will be systemic changes and they are enacted?

We should continue introducing legislation and policies that aim to combat gender-based abuses and violations, as well as continuously demanding accountability from leaders who violate the very laws that they sign. To go beyond online discussions and trending hashtags, every Filipino must also commit to changing the culture that permits rape jokes, homophobic slurs, misogynistic comments, and whatnot.

The public must realize it has the power to create these systemic changes by being active participants in our own communities — support local organizations that address sexual harassment; engage with people face-to-face (with social distancing, of course) to learn and talk about gender-based issues; and get to know our leaders (from your barangay officials to those sitting in national government) so we can vote for those who will uphold the systemic changes that we want to see.

Everyone in the system has a responsibility to change it — by discouraging bad behavior, encouraging victims to speak out, providing support to survivors, and creating and sustaining a climate of mutual respect, transparency and accountability.

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