Calling out catcalls in Costa Rica: Why one video has stirred debate

Street harassment isn't just uncomfortable, it can influence whether a woman continues her education or works outside the home. Some Costa Ricans are pushing to criminalize the behavior.

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In this video screen capture, a gray-haired man closely follows a woman on a crowded street, his smartphone pointed up her skirt.

The video is shaky, but it’s clear what’s unfolding: A gray-haired man closely follows a woman on a crowded street, his smartphone pointed up her skirt. A voice cuts in: “Muchacha, get a police officer, he was filming you." 

The video, which 22-year-old Gerardo Cruz shot and uploaded to his Facebook page, became a social media sensation and caused an uproar in Costa Rica late last month. Days later, Mr. Cruz paid a price for his outspokenness: he was stabbed and seriously injured while on his way to a TV interview on the topic. The police have not said if they believe Cruz’s attack was directly linked to his filming, but the jury of public opinion sees a connection.

Newspaper headlines have asked "Has Gerardo Cruz Set off Social Change?," and conversations on street corners and at breakfast tables touch on the prevalence of harassment and how to stop it.

But, for many in Costa Rica and across Latin America, the video and the attack simply fueled a conversation that was already well under way.

A new generation of activists in Costa Rica and elsewhere in the region has stood up to say they've had enough of the harassment women often face while walking on Latin America's city streets. They are working to shift the culture of machismo here – through tactics that range from public art targeting aggressors to global movements like “Hollaback” that map incidents, to successful efforts to criminalize street harassment.

Street harassment and catcalling aren’t problems simply because they might make a woman feel uncomfortable on the street, advocates say. There are much bigger implications: How safe a woman feels on public transportation or walking through town, for example, may affect her decision to continue her education or work outside the home. 

“You feel vulnerable,” says María Virginia Menses, national coordinator for the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights in Nicaragua. “No woman escapes it; it doesn’t matter how old they are."

Despite what she calls an uphill battle, she sees progress. "Young women aren't waiting around for the state" to create a change, Ms. Menses says. "They're taking action." 

'Not right'

According to the 2015 State of the Human Rights of Women in Costa Rica report, nearly 80 percent of women reported being the target of catcalls. Just under 20 percent reported unwanted touching in public. And the numbers are similar elsewhere in Latin America.

In Chile, the Observatory against Street Harassment's 2015 survey found 85 percent of women there reported harassment in public. More than 20 percent reported being the target of exhibitionism and other forms of aggressive public harassment. And a 2014 Thompson Reuters Foundation and YouGov poll found that 60 percent of women in large Latin American cities report experiencing harassment – both verbal and physical – while using public transportation. Bogota, Mexico City, and Lima, Peru ranked as the most unsafe for women on public trains and buses.

Women have long spoken out on the topic here, says Cynthia Castro, who helped organize a march on Oct. 18 in support of a law that would criminalize street harassment. But she feels that in recent years, the issue has started to get more traction.

For better or for worse, in the case of Cruz, a lot of attention came from the fact that “it was a man who told other men that this is not how men should behave. That it’s not right,” Ms. Castro says. 

A collection of women’s rights organizations jumped into action this month, meeting with Costa Rican lawmakers to discuss drafting a bill that would criminalize the kind of behavior caught on Cruz’s video.

And they’re not alone. Peru became the first country in Latin America to criminalize street harassment when it passed a law in March, which says an offender can face up to 12 years in prison for catcalling. Chile, Argentina, and Panama are discussing similar laws. 

But just because a law is on the books doesn’t mean it will end street harassment, warns Ms. Menses in Nicaragua. She says it’s important to both punish street harassment but also to emphasize the role of prevention and education

Liliana Castro, head of the Costa Rican Protection of Women’s Rights Department, agrees.

“We need [people] to react, think, and reflect that this is a form of violence against women,” not abstain from it simply because he would be punished, she says.

Both Meneses and Ms. Castro say they have noticed a change in younger generations of women across the region, in terms of their tolerance for harassment and in how they handle it.

“They [are] more empowered,” Castro says.  

In Mexico City, that greater empowerment was on bold display last year. A US artist traveled there to document the testimonies of scores of women who had been harassed in the streets. Drawings of the women were then posted on walls in all corners of the city, giving voice to the women’s response to their aggressors in a global project dubbed “Stop telling me to smile.” Other creative approaches include a fake documentary released in Peru that shows men accidentally catcalling their own mothers – and a program in Nicaragua in 2012 that had women blowing whistles and handing out red cards, like a penalty in soccer, when they witnessed street harassment.

In central Mexico City, remnants of one poster still stick to a wall near a major intersection: “I deserve to be respected,” it reads.

Kattia Monge, a physical therapist attending a march in San José, Costa Rica, in mid-October, says that she feels the same way.

"There is harassment in the streets and it gets more difficult everyday,” she says. But, "it's time to wake up and say no to this."

– Whitney Eulich contributed reporting from Mexico City

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