San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Panama Congresswoman's anti-sexual harassment bill faces ridicule

The Panamanian press calls it the “anti-piropos law.” Piropos, if you’re new to Central American slang, translates loosely to “catcalls.”

Many Central American women are more likely to hear whistles and “mamita rica”s than “buenos días” on their daily walk to work or school. Sometimes its poetic; sometimes its intimidating or downright derogatory.

In an effort to eradicate the latter, Ana Matilde Gómez, an independent member of Panama’s National Assembly, the country’s legislature, introduced a bill that would criminalize what she calls “street harassment.”

But the bill would do much more than that — outlawing bullying, stalking, racism and all forms of sexual harassment. It also calls for developing public policies aimed at preventing these abuses.

Still, many among the Panamanian press and public have missed the bill’s broader aim. Search #leyantipiropos on Twitter and you’ll find a mix of crude jokes (from men), ridicule (from men and women) and strong opinions in favor of the bill (mostly from women).

Gómez introduced the bill in February, but it has yet to be assigned to a committee or placed on any agenda for discussion.

The initiative’s official title is “To Prevent, Ban and Punish Street Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Stalking, Favoritism, Sexism and Racism in all Spheres.” Despite opponents’ narrow attention on the targeting of “piropos,” that word is only mentioned twice in the bill.

Women’s organizations have expressed strong support for the initiative — including the banning of street harassment.

Gilma de León, vice president of the Foundation for Gender Equity, told the Spanish news agency Efe that it was “irresponsible to take it as a joke, because it’s a law that’s going to protect women and change sociocultural patterns.” De León helped draft the bill.

The proposal’s description of street harassment also encompasses more than catcalls.

“Gender-motivated street harassment by strangers is suffered mainly by young women, and it includes touching on public transportation or on the street…it is aggression against women walking alone on the street,” the bill reads.

In interviews, Gómez has defended the bill as necessary to bring Panama in line with international human rights treaties signed by the nation, and with other countries that have outlawed bullying and workplace harassment.

Even sexual harassment is only partially outlawed in Panama. In the country’s penal code, Gómez notes, the prohibition against sexual harassment only addresses harassment that is specifically motivated by sexual intentions. The code says nothing about gender-based harassment.

Still, public opinion — at least the most vocal sector — appears to be focused narrowly on the anti-piropos section of the bill.

Many commenters on articles published by Panamanian newspapers have mocked the bill, in some cases suggesting that the initiative could trigger false accusations by women in order to extort money from men.

Gómez told Efe that she regretted her proposal “is being made fun of,” because “it is a serious human rights issue.”

Legislators in other Central American countries have faced similar opposition in trying to curb the entrenched culture of catcalling.

In 2005, then-Costa Rica legislator Gloria Valerín Rodríguez (Social Christian Unity Party) introduced a bill that would have added street harassment against women to Costa Rica’s penal code.

Valerín proposed a fine of 30 to 50 days minimum wage for perpetrators. The bill was unsuccessful.

Of course, it’s not just in Latin America. Watch this video of a woman walking the streets of New York City

Comments are closed.

Eric Jackson

Panama is one of those rare male-majority countries not because we have female infanticide or gender selection abortions, or because women don’t tend to live longer here as in other countries. It’s male-majority because Panamanian women, who on the whole are much better educated than Panamanian men, frequently marry foreigners and leave. Ana Matilde may not be my very favorite politician and her proposal may not change male behavior anytime soon. But she was right to bring this up and the ones worthy of ridicule are those in the boys’ club political caste.

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Ken Morris

I don’t have high hopes for the effectiveness of a law like this, but I favor passing the bill–and others like it elsewhere–especially if “street harassment” isn’t solely defined by gender.

First, it is true that women endure and suffer a lot of this street harassment–and I mean a lot of it. Granted, much of it is water off a duck, not very bothersome, but some of it is quite aggressive and even hostile. Plus, even when it’s minor, why should women have to deal with this rudeness from total strangers?

Second, while an especially egregious and common form of it, the street harassment of women is only a part of more widespread street harassment.

Panhandlers and street hustlers are experts at it, and men know this too. We hear the “hey buddy” and find some jerk who hasn’t washed his hands in months insisting that we shake his hand, after which of course he tries to drag us into a long conversation, the point of which is that he wants money.

Beneath the schtick of the panhandlers and street hustlers is the intentional breech of civility. The culprit distorts the usually norms of civility, that for example require handshakes, with the sole goal of getting money. In doing so, however, the norms of civility are violated, everybody knows that, and in exasperation the victims avoid the streets. This leaves the streets to be dominated by the panhandlers and hustlers, with the effect that public life is destroyed.

True, the street harassment of women is often of a different order, but at base much of it is the same. Things that a man might say to a woman he knows (and the woman might appreciate hearing) are said by total strangers, and in that context are rudely destructive of public life.

I am a firm believer that minor but regular infractions of civility on the streets are more destructive of public life than the criminals. Indeed, the criminals wouldn’t be able to get away with their crimes if the good people hadn’t abandoned the streets in order to avoid the more minor harassments.

The big question is of course whether a law can be passed that will be effective in stopping or even diminishing this harassment. I suspect that the answer is that it cannot. Enforcement of informal norms of civility is rarely anything that the formal criminal justice system can do effectively.

Even so, sometimes a law can be justified on the grounds that it sets a moral standard for acceptable behavior even if its enforcement will be iffy. I think this is an instance where such a law is warranted.

Honestly, it’s a serious problem–far more serious than most realize–and someone needs to unequivocally say that it’s just wrong. The law should assume this responsibility of telling people that street harassment is just wrong.

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Morgan O'Brien-Bledsoe

“Granted, much of it is water off a duck, not very bothersome” This is just proof your male. Panhandlers are trying to get money to eat, men who yell out at women are using their power over that woman. One is an attempt at living the other is a power play and even the smallest comment can be extremely intimidating. You are part of the problem when you say ANY of it is no big deal. When you make some of it ok you make all of it ok because one man may see his following a woman to her car and raping her the same as another man see’s telling a stranger how good she looks. If you don’t know a woman don’t compliment her, don’t follow her and just leave her alone.

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Ken Morris

Disqualifying males is a bad way to begin, especially when they support a bill largely intended to protect women, and it’s pretty low of you to say that I’m condoning stalking and rape.

Mostly, think about the implications of what you’re saying. You want to forbid any cross-gender conversation at all between strangers? This isn’t a very civil stance.

And for what it’s worth I don’t buy the quasi-feminist lecture about how street harassment is all about men “using their power.” This is sometimes true, other times isn’t, but mostly is an old quasi-feminist platitude that doesn’t always hold up. Plus it presupposes that men have the power. What power? The power to talk? Last I looked most women could talk too.

Neither do I need to be told that some panhandlers are sweet and only trying to get money to eat. Sorry, for some it’s an intimidation ritual.

I’ll continue to support the right of people to navigate public space without harassment, even though posts like yours make it difficult.

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