Woman in the streets of Brussels. Photo: Philippe Brysse
A new Belgian law expected to come into effect in early April will make sexual harassment a criminal offence punishable by fines of up to $1500 or a prison sentence of up to one year. The law will not only cover harassment on the streets, but also in the workplace and on social media. The legislation was announced on March 13 by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Interior and Equal Opportunities, Joelle Milquet.
While Belgium already has laws against sexual discrimination, Milquet felt there was a need for further legislation to protect against harassment. According to Belgian newspaper Flanders Today, the bill will outlaw making ‘a gesture or statement that is clearly intended to express contempt for one or more people of a different gender on the basis of their gender or to make them appear inferior or reduce them to their sexual dimension in a way that constitutes a serious attack on their dignity’. The Daily Mail reports that the laws, while designed to protect women, will also cover sexism targeted at men and will, for example, outlaw ‘mocking a stay-at-home father or insulting a woman for wearing revealing clothes’.
The bill was in part prompted by Sofie Peeters’s 2012 student documentary, Femme de la Rue, which showed hidden camera footage of unwanted sexual comments on the streets of Brussels and interviews with Belgian women on their experience of public sexual harassment. The film caused controversy and incited public debate in Belgium on the topic of street harassment with its startling depictions of suggestive language, sexist comments and downright insults flung at women as they went about their daily business.
Protestors hold a banner reading 'seksisme is dodelijk' (sexism is deadly) during the Slutwalk demonstration in Brussels on 25 September 2011. Photo: BRUNO FAHY
Are stricter legal measures the way to go moving forward when it comes to reducing sexism? The proposed legislation in Belgium will give women another tool to fight back against street harassment, a continuing problem that can range from wolf whistles to catcalls to stalking. Last year the former executive director of UN Women and current president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, bemoaned the lack of legislation addressing the issue saying, “Despite its prevalence, violence and harassment against women and girls in public spaces remains a largely neglected issue, with few laws or policies in place to address it.”
In Australia most sexual harassment laws are designed to protect women in the workplace, such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. In May 2011, the Sex and Age Discrimination Legislation Amendment Act was passed with one of the amendments being to redefine sexual harassment to cover circumstances ‘where a reasonable person would anticipate the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct’. While the majority of recommendations made in 2008 by the Australian Human Rights Commission were adopted in the Amendment Act, one that was not was the ‘general prohibition against sexual harassment in any area of public life’, which could have given greater legal avenues to address street harassment.
There have been other attempts globally to fight the issue such as the Council of Europe’s 2011 convention on preventing and combating violence against women, with signatories including Italy, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and more pledging to ‘take the necessary legislative and other measures to promote and protect the right for everyone, particularly women, to live free from violence in both the public and the private sphere’, which included a section calling on legal sanctions for ‘unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature’. There have also been grassroots activism campaigns with online sites like Hollaback! and Stop Street Harassment emerging to let women share their stories and deep dissatisfaction with public sexual harassment.
It has been reported that Milquet told a Brussels newspaper regarding the legislation, “Men do not realise that women hear sexist remarks on a daily basis. These little insults shouted out at women by groups of youths… are trivialised in our society. This has to stop. A woman is not a sexual object.”