QCOSTARICA – “Once a man told me some sh*t and since I didn’t pay him any attention, he told me how nice it would be to see on the news that I was raped and killed for being rude, that if I dressed like that, I was asking for it,” Nicole Hernández, 21 years old, to La Nación.
This is an example of street sexual harassment that many women, young and not so young, in Costa Rica have to live with on a daily basis on the part of disrespectful men.
It is a continuous manifestation of violence against women. It is not something new or miniscule. It has a negative impact on the daily lives of the victims and can cause permanent damage.
They are diverse acts such as unwanted touching, purposeful closeness, exhibitionism, masturbation, obscene gestures, and all kinds of guttural sounds of a sexual nature.
They can be in the form of comments, insinuations or verbal expressions of a sexual nature allusive to the body, the sexual act, or that are humiliating, hostile or offensive towards women.
These actions can be very dangerous, since they constitute practices that, taken to extreme situations, encourage sexual acts as serious as rape or sexual abuse.
Nicole’s story is not an isolated case. It is a clear example that street harassment is a permanent problem.
“I was born in 1958, I got polio and my leg was affected. When I was 18 years old, I came to live in San José because I was admitted to the UCR. There was a newspaper vendor on the corner of the Cathedral who when I passed by said to me: Mami, what did they do to you last night? They left you walking like that”
Maria Elena Alfaro
After a long wait, in August of the year, the law against street sexual harassment went into force, which imposes fines and jail terms for those who commit sexual harassment on public roads and means of transportation.
In just over three months (12 weeks), 36 people have been arrested – the equivalent of one arrest every three days – for street sexual harassment as defined in the new law, with four convictions.
According to data from the Ministry of Public Security (MSP), up to November 23, persecution or cornering has topped the arrests (23), followed by exhibitionism or masturbation (12).
One person was arrested for the production of audiovisual material, which has the highest penalty, up to 18 months in prison.
“A boy came to my house to tell me that he liked me a lot and that he wanted my number. I left for about 10 minutes and when I returned home, the boy was inside my house because he pretended to be one of my friends and I was very scared, I called 9-1-1 and then he left.
The penalties are increased by one-third if the offender is a repeat offender, if the offenses are committed by more than one person, or if the victim is a minor, an elderly person or has a disability.
However, beyond the sanctions, the aim of the law was to reduce the high impunity that existed in previous years.
Amanda Segura Salazar, advisor and criminal lawyer of the National Institute for Women (Inamu), indicates that the main advantage of the law is to provide a path to file complaints, that you can go to the authorities, and that they have to respond.
In addition, it highlights that another purpose is for people to stop normalizing these behaviors and reject them, since they threaten the dignity of women.
According to the law, words, noises, hisses, gasps or gestures with sexual connotations are punished with fines, but for Segura, this is not proportional to the damage they cause.
“The law is greatly weakened due to the fact that they (the acts of street sexual harassment) are sanctioned only by fines because it is not proportional to the damage that is caused, the fear that it gives us (women), how we change our way of life, whether or not we go out at a certain time, whether or not we dress a certain way or go out with someone,” she explained.
The lawyer pointed out that a “piropo” (an over sexual remark) can remind a victim of sexual abuse of a past experience or relive a moment where she was violated, so it should not be taken as something minor.
For her part, Alejandra Arburola, from the Acción Respeto organization, affirmed that this harassment is a type of violence that all women experience in the course of their lives and that it generates fear, insecurity and intimidation.
Once, when I was 18 years old, I was leaving a party and a motorcycle got on the sidewalk and the driver pulled my top down. I have more experiences, but that was the one that scarred me the most. I was shocked, I didn’t know what to do. It was like 11 pm and I just continued walking and crying to the bus stop
“Street sexual harassment, although people say it is not so bad, is so bad, because it changes the lifestyle of women and their daily lives,” she said.
Arburola argues that institutions must address the problem with a gender perspective and that the law does not seek that all bullies go to jail, but rather that it creates a deterrent effect.
For Inamu, the biggest problem with street harassment is that it has been “naturalized” or “normalized”, that is, it has not been seen as a form of violence that affects mostly women and has been reproduced normally.
It indicates that this violence has been an effective mechanism that the patriarchy has used to maintain female subordination to the male, a tool so that women do not advance in the recognition and enjoyment of their rights.
Marcela Arroyave, from the Inamu Department of Gender Violence, explains that street harassment limits the right of mobility of women to access public spaces freely and safely, and sends an implicit message that this is not their space.
In addition, it highlights that they always try to blame the victim, for dressing in a certain way, for walking in a certain place or for going out at certain times.
I went shopping in shorts and when I was walking back to my apartment a mae (man) started to follow me and started asking me questions, where did I live, what was I doing there and where was I going. He followed me five blocks telling me that I had beautiful legs and insisting that I have a drink with him
“The truth is that no matter how you dress or where you go, harassment occurs because men consider a woman’s body as theirs and that is why they exercise that power over them when they are in public spaces,” Arroyave said.
Public Safety statistics show that the majority of arrests for street sexual harassment occurred in the capital (San Jose) and that the peak was in October.
For Eduardo Solano, deputy Minister of Security, this responds to three factors. One of them is the population density of San José.
The second is that there are more police resources than in the rest of the country, the delegations are closer and there are also places with a permanent police presence, such as some parks, for example. The last factor is that there are more tools to understand what harassment is.
“Many people do not know that a certain action is harassment; It makes them uncomfortable and they know it’s wrong, but they don’t see it as harassment. In San José, it is clearer what situations of harassment are and therefore the victims have a better chance of knowing that what just happened was harassment and that they have more support network,” he argued.
Solano considers that the latter is related to the level of schooling and the sociodemographic dynamics of the city, compared to remote or rural areas.
However, he assures that the police response must be effective no matter where.
Victims of street sexual harassment have three options to report: seek out a police officer nearby, call 9-1-1, or go to the nearest Fuerza Publica (National Police) delegation to file a complaint.
Police must respond quickly and must conduct a search if the alleged harasser flees, and it is helpful when the victim can provide physical or clothing characteristics of the person who committed the crime.
In addition, if the harasser cannot be found, the victim can file a complaint with the OIJ against an unknown person.
Although the law introduced jail terms for these crimes, stalkers are not always incarcerated, as they can get the benefit of conditional execution of the sentence.
One day I was with my friends having a picnic in La Sabana and a guy started masturbating at the table in front of us. He stood there watching us eat while he stroked. When we realized I screamed and ran for the police.
Maria Fernanda Calderon
However, the law also provides for judges to apply accessory penalties, which would consist of addiction treatment and specialized programs to control violent behavior.
These initiatives are intended to re-educate and raise awareness on issues such as toxic masculinities, gender equality and respect for women’s human rights. The expenses incurred for these treatments will be borne by the State, unless the convicted person has sufficient financial resources.
“The law proposes alternative penalties and that implies other ways to carry the penal sanction other than going to prison,” said Solano.