The op-ed section of The New York Times on December 15 published a personal ordeal of Salma Hayek, a Mexican actress who catapulted to international stardom through the action movie “Desperado,” working with the now infamous Hollywood film producer, Harvey Weinstein. Ms. Hayek is the latest voice of women celebrities who, after years of silence, have defied the norms in male-dominated movie industry by exposing Weinstein’s sexual improprieties. Unfortunately, predators like Weinstein are no respecter of victim’s station in life. Leveraging on social media, other victims from the world over – most of them have no celebrity status, also share their harrowing experience in the hands of powerful men, mostly in the workplace: halls of parliament, house of worship, tech industry, learning institutions. Global outrage and condemnation is swift and instantaneous that some powerful men have either been forced to resign or dismissed from their work. What has gone wrong with men?
Regardless of gender anyone can be a potential victim of sexual harassment; women by far represent the most number of victims. Already a global scourge, sexual harassment varies in form and gravity. Data compiled by Cable News Network (CNN) are alarming, among others: 35% of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence; in Egypt, 99% of women surveyed across seven regions have experienced sexual harassment; in U.K, 64% of women have experienced unwanted sexual harassment in public places. In public transportation, the top choice of most countries to ease traffic congestion, groping is endemic that some women and girls prefer to stay at home. Huffingtonpost reported that in Latin America 6 in 10 women were physically harassed in public transportation. The top five cities in the world, according stopstreetharassment.org, where women are likely to experience groping in public transportation are: Mexico City, Bogota, Lima, Tokyo and Delhi. Government response to sexual harassment varies from country to country; some are proactive others have remained reactive. It was only in 2010 that Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country, enacted a law that provides women-only train in public transportation to stem alarming cases of groping.
Sexual harassment entered the Philippine criminal statue only in 1995. The scope of Anti-Sexual Harassment Act (ASHA) is limited to acts committed in the employment, education and training environment, and the maximum penalty of imprisonment is no more than six months. The city health officer of Cagayan de Oro City, in the case of Dr. Rico Jacutin vs People of the Philippines, was the first offender to have received the application of law. Sexual harassment is also considered a form of violence against women in a separate penal of Anti-violence against women and their children Act of 2004 (A-VAWC). In the enforcement of ASHA, private and government institutions are mandated to promulgate rules and regulations in their respective sphere of influence to address sexual harassment and provide sanctions to erring employees. It is noticeable, though, that of the recorded cases of sexual harassment, either in court or administrative bodies, almost all complainants are females, a stark contrast to media reports of sexual improprieties of priests in local churches and teachers and administrators in educational institutions. Months ago, a blind item in a local paper mentioned a male admin officer of a known private firm in Manila for preying on his younger male colleagues. Since no one filed a formal complaint for fear of reprisal, the guy remained ensconced in his position.
There are still gaps, arguably, in the country’s campaign for gender equality that are not addressed by existing sexual harassment policies and laws. Consider the results of 2016 Social Weather Station survey conducted in two barangays of Quezon City: 3 in 5 women have experienced sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime; common form of harassment is wolf whistling followed by catcalling across age brackets; more harassers in school (55%) than out-of-school (45%); as to victim-blaming, more women than men think that it is the woman’s fault why she gets harassed; the top reason why women did nothing to sexual harassment, what happened was just negligible. Senator Grace Poe should be praised for filing an amendatory bill that will increase penalty of sexual harassment. Gender advocates are well aware that in the current penalty of ASHA no offender is likely to serve jail term. Local Government Units can do more to prevent the marginalization of women by leveraging the controversial five per cent (5%) Gender and Development (GAD) budget to empower women and develop their potential to the fullest. Again, this is no silver bullet to address the many tricks that some men have contrived to impose their alleged superiority over women.
Studies have shown that sexual harassment is not about sex but all about power. When powerful people, mostly men, harbor the unfounded belief that they have the unbridled freedom to impose their own will over the powerless, mostly female subordinates, power imbalance is created between men and women to the detriment of society. Sexual harassment thrives because society considers sexual improprieties of men as inherently normal; that the yardstick of what differentiates human being from ordinary animal applies only women. To restore order in society and maintain the equilibrium of gender voices, all areas of human interaction, be it in public of private spheres, be considered gender-free zone. Ordinary citizens need not wait for another global icon like Salma Hayek to join the chorus of condemnation against abuses of powerful men. The voices of powerless if properly channeled are more than enough to restrain if not decapitate the hands of powerful men from roving aimlessly to sacred and protected places. Happy New Year!