The deluge of accusations of sexual misconduct directed at Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has caused reverberations around the world. For weeks now, the behavior of the disgraced movie producer has become secondary to the larger questions of how, and why, are such predatory men still protected by the social, economic, and political structures all around us. The “Weinstein effect” has led to the unmasking of dozens of prominent public figures in the United States, and also in Canada, Europe, and beyond, as criminals of the lowest sort. Many more will surely follow.
Latin America is no exception. In recent weeks, for example, Argentines have witnessed the very public humiliation of journalist and self-help author Ari Paluch, who was fired from his own show after being caught on video fondling the buttocks of a female crewmember, as well as prominent judge Oscar Hergott, rock guitarist Gustavo Fiocchi, and the cousin of the owner of the River Plate soccer team, all for allegations of sexual harassment, molestation, and rape. Women in media and entertainment worlds have become more vocal about the dangers they face in those realms.
In Bolivia, journalist Yadira Peláez went public with allegations against the powerful television executive Carlos Flores. Mexican actress Karla Souza recently caused shockwaves when she described in detail the rampant sexism and toxic atmosphere in her country’s film industry.
There’s no doubt that this is a belated and positive development. It’s high time that women are heard, and that they are protected from unscrupulous men who will use their influence and position to get away with the most despicable behavior. On the other hand, feminists and advocates for women’s rights argue, it would be a mistake to keep too tight a focus on the top of the social totem pole.
Sexual harassment is rampant across every level of society. This is particularly obvious in Latin America, where a conservative and very sexist outlook on the relationship between men and women still predominates.
Consider something as commonplace as using public transportation. Millions of Latin American women travel on buses, taxis, trains, subways, and other modes of transport for their daily needs, to get to work, go grocery shopping, see their family and friends. Every time they board one of these vehicles, they become targets for harassment or assault. As a young man growing up in Latin America, I routinely heard men joke about touching women on the bus. The victims’ protestations were often the punch lines of dirty jokes.
A new study released by an Argentine women’s rights group found that 40 percent of women have been accosted or assaulted while riding public transportation, which is actually significantly lower than an earlier poll, which shows that almost 80 percent of women admit to having been fondled against their will while travelling on public-use vehicles. A similar study in Guatemala (published in August of this year) finds that over 90 percent of women have been the recipients of unwanted touch while riding buses and trains. Sixty-three percent report having been so treated “multiple times.” The numbers are similar across the region, from Chile to Mexico, from Brazil to Costa Rica to Ecuador.
A 2015 report prepared by the Tomas Reuters Foundation concludes that the public transport systems in Lima (Peru), Bogotá (Colombia), Buenos Aires (Argentina), and Mexico City are among the most dangerous for women in the world.
Few people doubt that accosting and touching women in this way is unacceptable, and should be treated as a criminal offense. A study in Colombia, for instance, finds that 81% of men and 85% of women support the notion that touching a woman against her will, even if fleetingly in a crowded subway car, should be treated as a sex crime. The question then, is what can be done about it.
Latin American policymakers and advocacy organizations have mostly concentrated on three strategies. The first is to create modes of transportation where women can be and feel safer, specifically by keeping them separate from men. Some cities in Mexico (since 2004) and Brazil (since 2006), for example, have experimented with “pink” train cars for the exclusive use of women. Other countries have followed suit. Bogotá implemented the measure in 2014, but the program was terminated two years later after authorities concluded it was not having much of an effect. Critics have argued that such programs are nothing more than Band Aids which try to deal with a problem by hiding, rather than addressing, the root causes of such behavior: institutionalized racism and chauvinism.
A second strategy to deal with the problem has been increased legal attention. In 2015, the Peruvian government approved landmark legislation designed to “protect women, girls, and teens from sexual harassment and assault in public places, which affects their dignity, freedom, free movement, and right to physical and moral integrity.” Several countries in the region are in the process of creating similar laws. Unfortunately, most incidents go unreported by women who don’t have the time to lodge a complaint, or who don’t have confidence that anything will come of doing so. Researchers in Mexico, moreover, have found that authorities often discourage victims from going forward and try to minimize the significance of the offenses.
The third strategy is the most ambitious, but also the most frustrating. It involves attempts at changing the culture that fosters such behavior in the first place. Behind the leadership of progressive president Rafael Correa, Ecuador has been a leader in the creation of public education campaigns aimed at curbing sexual assault. Two recent campaign are “Que no te toque” (“Don’t let him touch you”) and “Bájale al acoso” (“Take down harassment”), developed both to advocate for policies that protect women but also to speak to men and urge them to change.
Such efforts, even if successful, will take years to make a noticeable impact. But they are ultimately the only way to make sure that society is never again complicit with the Weinsteins of the world, whether millionaires in Hollywood or ‘regular’ men riding the bus.