Are Philippine cities safe for women?

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The road to safer cities for women is paved with lapses in laws and a whole lot of misogyny. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Violence begins with language,” women’s rights advocate Senator Risa Hontiveros says at the Safe Cities Metro Manila Mayors Conference. She is talking about catcalling and wolf-whistling, and the ways through which sexual harassment begins.

The event, organized by United Nations Women, aims to gather local officials from across Metro Manila to get them on board with the Safe Cities Metro Manila Programme — an effort to make cities safer through passing local ordinances that would penalize sexual harassment in public spaces. The first to sign on was Quezon City, which ran its “Magastos mambastos sa Q.C.” campaign after it criminalized catcalling and other forms of harassment through an ordinance in 2016.

Since then, Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista says 12 cases have been raised on sexual harassment. Of those, only two have been pursued.

It’s a start, but it is also a far cry from the numbers. Social Weather Stations and UN Women found that in 2016, 88 percent of 18- to 24-year-old women have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime, and one in seven women experienced it every week in the year leading up to the study.

Katherine Belen It’s difficult to rely on anti-harassment measures when they are not uniformly implemented across neighboring locales, says UN Women consultant Katherine Belen. To date, only Quezon City has signed onto the Safe Cities program. Photo from SAFE CITIES METRO MANILA PROGRAMME/FACEBOOK

It’s difficult to flesh out the roots of the problem — sexual harassment happens in both developed and developing countries — and is so entrenched, even glorified, in Filipino machismo culture that it may require a new culture to overturn this aspect of it.

Personalities from the event — particularly Hontiveros, Bautista, and UN Women consultant Katherine Belen — are confident that other local government units will follow suit. But what exactly are we up against in the long fight against sexual harassment? Let’s take a look at the specific — even structural — roadblocks that keep us from walking into safer cities, and what can be done to overcome them.

1. Address the faults in our legislation.

The country’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Act penalizes sexual harassment in schools and workplaces, but only if the offender is a superior — such as a teacher harassing a student or a boss taking advantage of his subordinate. The law does not recognize harassment caused by peers, subordinates, and even strangers.

This loophole is one of the things Hontiveros hopes to address in the Tres Marias Bills, measures that seek to amend the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act, foreground the issue of consent for statutory rape, and recognize online harassment. Then there is the supplemental Safe Streets and Public Spaces Act, which slaps between ₱1,000 to ₱10,000 fines for violations from catcalling to groping.

Sexual harassment happens in both developed and developing countries — and is so entrenched, even glorified, in Filipino machismo culture that it may require a new culture to overturn this aspect of it.

However, the fate of the measures in the lower chamber remains uncertain. House Committee on Women Chair Rep. Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, who championed the bill for extended maternity leave, was ousted from her position in March along with ten others for their stance against the death penalty.

2. Streamline inconsistent local government ordinances.

With slow-moving national laws, another measure could spark action: city ordinances. These local laws could serve as a safety net while sustainable anti-harassment legislature toils through bureaucratic structures.

But it’s difficult to rely on anti-harassment measures when they are not uniformly implemented across neighboring locales, says Belen. To date, only Quezon City has signed on to be part of the Safe Cities program.

Belen points out that if a woman lives in Quezon City but works in Makati she would have to travel across at least three cities every day.

“And if all those other cities don’t have this similar ordinance, it’s difficult to ensure the safety of the woman,” says Belen. “You’re in an MRT, and when you’re in Makati, all of a sudden you’re not covered by Quezon City law.”

Of the 17 cities and municipality invited to the Safe Cities conference, only Marikina did not attend.

3. Call out misogynistic comments from public officials.

In her speech at the conference, Hontiveros took a dig at misogynistic leadership, saying, “We cannot claim to ever create a safe city if the actions and words of our elected officials all over the cities make us feel unsafe.”

Risa Hontiveros - safe cities “Violence begins with language,” women’s rights advocate Senator Risa Hontiveros says at the Safe Cities Metro Manila Mayors Conference. Photo by ARIEL RAULE

Speaking to the press, Hontiveros says that misogynistic behavior from higher officials “should in fact not delay but prove … the necessity and urgency of passing such measures” against harassment.

She was open about referring to President Rodrigo Duterte, citing that he had said he would take the jail time for up to three cases of rape committed by soldiers following his declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Speaking to soldiers in Iligan City on May 26, Duterte said, “‘Pag naka-rape ka ng tatlo, aminin ko na akin 'yun. 'Pag nag-asawa ka ng pang-apat, ‘t*** i** bugbugin ka.”

“At ‘yung mga pagbanggit sa binti ng babae or pag-catcall sa babaeng kasama ninyo sa media are all very bad examples, not at all what we should expect from our highest elected government official,” Hontiveros adds.

She was referring to Duterte’s admission to ogling at Vice President Leni Robredo’s legs during a Cabinet meeting in November last year, and his remarks toward GMA reporter Mariz Umali in June before that. Hontiveros says that such remarks from high officials set an example and precedent for the public, which manifest in heightened slut-shaming and harassment online.

4. Take part in a culture change.

Hontiveros also slammed “macho values” and “chauvinistic sensibilities.” Crass language, violence, and impunity — the tolerance of or failure to punish certain actions — all clump together.

“What we’re trying to change here is mindset and culture, mindset ng mga lalake at ng babae na ‘wag siyang mahiyang magdemanda.”

“Culture is a main leg on which harassment stands,” says Hontiveros, adding that shattering this mindset begins in homes and schools. “It’s also a main leg on which protection for women and respectful behavior among all sexes and gender can be internalized and expected and rewarded or punished in public spaces.”

“Siyempre ‘yung politika and ekonomiya ay kakambal din o katambal dun sa kultura,” Hontiveros adds.

To overhaul this culture, it has to be reshaped by a new one founded on respect — but changing a way of thinking is difficult to undo, and it takes time.

Quezon City Mayor Herbert Bautista agrees: “What we’re trying to change here is mindset and culture, mindset ng mga lalake at ng babae na ‘wag siyang mahiyang magdemanda.”

This can be changed through seminars and focal persons in the barangay, education and information campaigns in schools. Bautista says it does not change overnight.

When asked of a culture of misogyny among government officials, Bautista says, “Disiplinado naman sila. Alam naman nila ‘yung lugar kung saan dapat sila magsasalita.”

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According to UN Women, Safer Cities Metro Manila Programme will find out which cities will commit to safer streets this month. Follow their Facebook page for updates and for inquiries on whether the program has reached your city.