6 countries that are fighting back against catcalling

In some places, street harassment can put you in jail.

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Complex Original

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Catcalling—also known as wolf-whistling, street harassment, sexual harassment, or verbal abuse—is a global problem deeply related to sexism, gender violence, and homophobia.

According to research from street-harassment activist group Hollaback! and Cornell University, catcalling is primarily targeted at women and perpetrated by men. A 2014 survey revealed that 71 percent of women experience street harassment for the first time between the ages of 11 and 17, and more than 50 percent of women have been fondled or groped on the street.

Street harassment is a dangerous public issue: Publicly and repeatedly objectifying women creates an unsafe environment, which can and does turn violent. It's not uncommon for women to be harassed or stalked in public by men who later commit violence against them, including rape and murder.

Because street harassment is a global problem, the way it's treated socially and legally varies across cultures. Some countries have legislation to address public verbal harassment against women, and some are working hard just to get the discussion about catcalling started.

Here are some of the ways catcalling is addressed around the world:

1. Belgium

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Sexual harassment and catcalling have been illegal in Belgium since April 2014. This law was set in motion when a 2012 documentary about street harassment spurred national conversation about the topic. Created by then-film student Sofie Peeters, Femme de la Rue (French for “Women in the Street”) provided a startling look at catcalling in Brussels.

Street harassment is a significant problem in Belgium. According to Hollaback! and Cornell, 75 percent of Belgian women experienced street harassment for the first time before the age of 17, and almost every woman surveyed had been verbally harassed in public. 

Belgium's sexual-harassment law specifically states that it is illegal to sexually harass or intimidate a person based on gender; violation of the law is punishable by a fine or up to one year in prison. Acknowledging street harassment as a gender-motivated crime is an important first step to educate the general public about institutional sexism.

Making street harassment illegal in Belgium sends the message that women have a right to safety in public spaces. 

2. Portugal

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3. Argentina

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Street harassment in Argentina exists among high levels of femicide (the gender-motivated killing of women). The country's government passed several laws to create more severe punishments for men who commit femicide and domestic violence, yet legislation forbidding street harassment has not yet materialized, despite significant support from grassroots groups.

Despite this lack of legislation, a massive women’s movement called Ni Una Menos (meaning “not one less”) is fighting against street harassment and femicide. The group's large-scale public demonstrations have brought international attention to street harassment in Argentina. 

Translation: I want to repeat this day, this day when we felt and were strong. #2016NiUnaMenos We want another #7N #NiUnaMenos

Estas fueron, para mí, las tres mejores fotos de 2015.#NiUnaMenos#Inundaciones#JuicioTragediadeOnce pic.twitter.com/cLDj4Qp4eQ

— Matías Di Santi (@matydisanti) January 1, 2016

Translation: For me, these are the best three photos of 2015.

4. Canada

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Street harassment and catcalling are not explicitly prohibited by law in Canada, but the country's government does have a law under which public sexual harassment could fall. Canada's Criminal Code includes a section that states:

(1) No person shall, without lawful authority and knowing that another person is harassed or recklessly as to whether the other person is harassed, engage in conduct referred to in subsection (2) that causes that other person reasonably, in all the circumstances, to fear for their safety or the safety of anyone known to them.

If anyone were made to feel unsafe by sexual harassment, they could conceivably be punishable under this law, based on the following criteria:

(i) the target must feel harassed by the conduct; (ii) the perpetrator of the conduct must know or ought to know that the target feels harassed; (iii) the perpetrator’s conduct must be one of the acts listed in the section, including repeatedly following the target, repeatedly communicating with the target, besetting or watching places where the target frequents, or threatening the target or someone the target knows; (iv) lastly, the target of the conduct must have a reasonable fear for their safety or the safety or someone they know.

5. New Zealand

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New Zealand is another country that fines street harassers. 

Section 4 of New Zealand’s 1981 Summary Offences Act states that anyone who “uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person" can be fined up to $1,000.

Thanks to the Harassment Act of 1997, repeated workplace sexual harassment and pressure to have sex with a boss or coworker have been illegal in New Zealand for nearly 20 years. Types of harassment banned by the act include: offensive sexual remarks, promises of promotions in exchange for sex, and other sexual advances that may make a victim feel distressed or unsafe.

And the laws seem to be serving their purpose. 

After New Yorker Shoshana Roberts created a viral video ​depicting her experience of nonstop harassment in one day, New Zealand model Nicole Simpson recreated the experiment in her country. The number of times Simpson was catcalled during filming? Zero.

6. The United States

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In the United States, street harassment laws depend on the state. 

Nearly every state has laws about street harassment, but types of harassment punishable by law and the punishments themselves vary. For example, in New York, street harassment can lead to a $250 fine. 

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In Minnesota, several forms of street harassment (including verbal harassment and upskirt photos) are illegal. Wyoming has similar laws that ban verbal harassment, groping, and upskirt photos. 

The anti-harassment group Stop Street Harassment compiled a thorough list (last updated in 2013) that details street-harassment laws by state. 

While laws against street harassment are vital, punishments alone won't end the epidemic of public abuse against women. Sexism is not a problem that can be legislated out of existence. 

These laws serve as an important means of underscoring the gravity of street harassment, and are necessary to eradicate the widespread problem. But the global community also needs to take additional steps towards educating the public about why verbal sexual abuse is so harmful, before sexual harassment will be gone for good.

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