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Why catcalling could become a criminal offense in Argentina

The Argentine National Congress is considering a bill that would make catcalling a finable offense.

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    Aixa Rizzo poses for a picture in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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Argentine lawmakers are considering a bill that would make catcalling a criminal offense. 

The new legislation was partially inspired by a viral YouTube video posted in April by 20-year-old Aixa Rizzo. In the video, which received half a million views, she recalls being harassed by a group of male electricians outside her home in Buenos Aires and argues that verbal harassment could lead to physical abuse. 

"Lewd comments are just the tip of the iceberg that manifests itself in domestic violence," congresswoman Victoria Donda, who proposed the legislation that would make verbal harassment a crime, said in an interview with the Associated Press. 

A recent poll conducted by the Universidad Abierta Interamericana (UAI) revealed that the majority of women in Argentina have been on the receiving end of unwanted harassment while walking down the street. More than 70% of the women surveyed said they’d recently heard sexual comments from strangers, 56% said they cross the street when they see a group of men, and 42% said they are afraid of walking alone in public.

Under the new law, women could report sexual harassment in public places. The complaint would then be reviewed by a judge, who would interview witnesses and determine whether a fine should be levied. 

The proposed legislation has raised concerns from Argentine men, who worry that their well-intentioned compliments could be taken as more aggressive than they intended. 

"If we say nice things, what's wrong with that?" said construction worker Elio Borlio. "Things like, 'Look at how beautiful you are.'" 

The issue of catcalling has frequently found itself in the Argentine spotlight in recent years. In 2014, Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires, came under fire for saying on the radio that women shouldn't be offended by sexual comments from strangers.

“Women who say they don’t like it and are offended by it, I don’t believe it,” Macri said

Catcalling has even made its way into Argentine comedy. Comedienne Malena Pichot’s sketch about a woman who is catcalled and fantasizes about murdering her harassers drew thousands of viewers and sparked debate. 

“Society is against killing people. But society doesn’t seem to be bothered by you flashing me, and society doesn’t seem to have a problem with you telling me that you want to rape me," Pichot says at the end of the video. "So keep on saying it. Maybe one day you’ll work up the nerve to actually rape me.”

Some feel there are risks in implementing anti-catcalling laws. Gabe Rottman of the American Civil Liberties Union writes in a New York Times opinion piece that disorderly conduct laws "can be (and often are) misused against lawful protesters, people criticizing the police and individuals filming officers in public. Extending disorderly conduct laws to unwanted verbal interactions would amplify the potential for misuse in these and other areas." 

The new legislation coincides with a widespread movement combatting femicide and domestic abuse in South American countries. Last week, thousands of Argentinians flooded the streets to protest violence against women. 

The proposed legislation appears to have wide support thus far, and two similar proposals are also being considered by the municipality of Buenos Aires. A vote is expected in the coming months.  

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