Street harassment goes unpunished in Guatemala

Walking home, going shopping, riding the bus: these are all daily tasks that everyone should be able to complete in peace. Unfortunately, this is not reality, as our streets, avenues, and public transportation are among the list of places with the highest number of cases of street harassment. 96% of the victims are women. This means that the majority of women are accosted at least once a day. This can cause feelings of anger, indignation, discomfort, insecurity, and above all, fear.

What exactly is street harassment? Though there isn’t yet an official definition, the organization Frena el acoso callejero (Stop street harassment) uses the following: “Gender-based street violence consists of undesired comments, gestures, and actions made by a stranger in a public space without consent […] and includes unwanted whistling; derogatory comments of a lascivious, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic character; persistent requests for one’s name, phone number, or destination after this information has been refused; descriptions, comments, or demands referencing sexual acts; stalking, pursuit, indecent exposure, public masturbation, groping, sexual aggression, and rape.”

Often, street harassment is downplayed as flattery and flirtation. While victims blame themselves for the harm they suffer, they should actually treat this as it is: violence. Street harassment is a direct form of sexual violence that should not be normalized, as it causes immediate pain and psychological harm. Combined with other forms of violence, like chauvinistic microaggressions (subtle violence suffered in daily life) or structural violence (which prevents people from meeting their basic needs), it is one of the tools used to maintain the current patriarchal system and oppress women in their daily lives.

Because there is no punishment for street violence, women are being forced to suffer the consequences. In Guatemala, few incidents go reported, and perpetrators face repercussions with decreased frequency. In theory, victims could report street harassment to the Public Ministry, but even when someone works up the courage to do so, their case is rarely followed through with, simply because street harassment is not specifically mentioned in the penal code or other laws.

In November 2019, Nineth Montenegro (then Congressional Deputy and Party Leader for Encuentro por Guatemala) presented bill 5658: “A Law against Street Harassment and Other Forms of Violence against Women,” to finally punish street harassment. Now, three years later, there is no news regarding its enactment as law. The outlook is discouraging, as this initiative could disappear into oblivion, just like another presented in 2002.

In 2016, the Government of Guatemala developed a Campaign against Sexual Harassment on the Transmetro in cooperation with the Urban Police and Office of Urban Transportation. The initiative revolved around sharing a promotional video.

The fact that society is not sensitized to this issue and there is a lack of current legislation protecting women and punishing aggressor doesn’t deter the activists from Catcalls de Guatemala. Through plaster sculpture and social media initiatives, they give visibility to abuse and raise awareness through the stories of victims. The Guatemala Collective Observatory against Street Harassment (OCACGT) is another important actor in Guatemala, committed to making streets a safe space for all. It has a platform for reporting cases of street harassment, compiles and maps data about incidents, and makes a valiant effort to bust myths about street harassment. It also explains the psychological consequences related to this type of violence and publishes educational materials.

While there is no law against street harassment in Guatemala, OCACGT has three recommendations that we should all follow to make public spaces safer:

1 Respect all people and their personal space
2 Avoid having a lascivious gaze
3 Do not shout nor whistle at anybody

Anna Luisa Schoenwald is a climate change consultant and volunteer writer for ENTRE MUNDOS.