Safe spaces

My eldest daughter turned seven last week. Instead of a party, we took her to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” My girls had a magical time. They enjoyed the rides, the attractions and the encounters with some of their favorite characters. What made the experience more special for me was the fact that we were out in open spaces until late night. Something we rarely get to do in Manila.

The author Raymund Martelino with his daughters.

As parents, our topmost priority is keeping our children safe. We want them to grow in an environment that is secure at all times.

Sadly, it is only when we are abroad that my kids get to ride public transport and wander the streets at night. Much as I want them to ride the train to school or walk to the nearby mall, it is not wise to let them do so in this part of the world.

I cannot help worrying about them considering the continuing rise in street accidents and even sexual harassment. Our own townhouse security guard was relieved from duty last year because of catcalling a resident from across our place.

Which is why we should welcome this new law passed in July 2019, Republic Act No. 11313 or the “Safe Spaces Act.” The law defines gender-based sexual harassment in streets, public spaces, online, workplaces, and educational or training institutions, and provides for protective measures and penalties for violations.

The law’s principal author, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, regards the passing of the law as a “massive victory” and a “major push back” against what she calls the country’s “growing bastos culture.” The law expands the scope of existing sexual harassment laws by including public places, online, educational and workplace settings. It also broadened the limited definition of sexual harassment in the old law as it only covered sexual harassment committed by authority figures against subordinates in schools, training institutions and workplace. Stiffer penalties have also been provided.

Much has been written about the acts sought to be punished by the law. It is also important, however, to remember where these acts are prohibited or the places and spaces covered. The law defines “public spaces” as referring to streets and alleys, public parks, schools, buildings, malls, bars, restaurants, transportation terminals, public markets, spaces used as evacuation centers, government offices, public utility vehicles, as well as, private vehicles covered by app-based transport network services and other recreational spaces such as but not limited to cinema halls, theaters and spas.

The law criminalizes gender-based street and public space sexual harassment or the unwanted and uninvited sexual actions or remarks against any person regardless of the motive for committing such action or remarks.

It is interesting to note that gender under the law is defined as a set of socially ascribed characteristics, norms, roles, attitudes, values and expectations identifying the social behavior of men and women, and the relations between them. This is a digression from the gender definition based on biological distinctions or male and female sexes. Further, the law defines gender identity and/or expression as the personal sense of identity as characterized by the manner of clothing, inclinations, and behavior in relation to masculine and feminine conventions.

Public spaces are now required to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against gender-based streets and public spaces sexual harassment. These spaces include restaurants, bars, cinemas, malls, buildings, and other privately owned places open to the public. As such, the common areas of condominiums or subdivisions are covered.

Visible warning signs against gender-based public spaces sexual harassment, including the posting of an anti-sexual harassment hotline is now required of all restaurants, bars, cinemas, resorts, hotels, malls, other places of recreation, buildings and other privately-owned places open to the public. These establishments are also required to designate at least one anti-sexual harassment officer to receive complaints. Security guards may be deputized to apprehend violators caught in the act and are required to immediately coordinate with the authorities. CCTV footage shall be made available when ordered by the court.

Examples of gender-based sexual harassment include catcalling, wolf-whistling, unwanted invitations, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and sexist slurs, persistent uninvited comments or gestures, on a person’s appearance, relentless requests for personal details, statement of sexual comments and suggestions, public masturbation or flashing of private parts, groping, or any advances, whether verbal or physical, that is unwanted and has threatened one’s sense of personal space and physical safety, and committed in public spaces such as alleys, roads, sidewalks and parks. Acts constitutive of gender-based streets and public spaces sexual harassment are those performed in buildings, schools, churches, restaurants, malls, public washrooms, bars, internet shops, public markets, transportation terminals or public utility vehicles.

The lead government agencies tasked to implement and enforce the law are the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Department of Interior Local Government (DILG). They may even deputize enforcers to be Anti-Sexual Harassment Enforcers (ASHE). They shall be deputized to receive complaints on the street and immediately apprehend perpetrators if caught in flagrante delicto.

Pending proceedings in court, even before a final decision is rendered, a restraining order may be issued ordering a perpetrator to stay away from the offended person at a distance specified by the court or to stay away from the residence, school, place of employment or any specified place frequented by the offended person.

Now while the law intends to ensure security and safety for all, the devil is in the implementation. We have yet to see the law’s implementing rules and regulations. No law, however stringent, can change people’s behavior if there exists that disregard for basic human dignity and equality. At the end of the day we should educate everyone to respect others, regardless of sex, race or creed. More importantly, we should teach our children how to deal with deviants.