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DC passes historic law to combat street harassment

Wmc Features Brianne Nadeau 080118
D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau introduced the new anti–street harassment law. (Photo courtesy of Councilmember Brianne Nadeau)

The Council of the District of Columbia recently passed the Street Harassment Prevention Act of 2018 (SHPA), the first legislation of its kind in the United States. It is one of more than 20 laws addressing street harassment to pass globally since 2012, and laws are under consideration in a dozen more places.

The SHPA is groundbreaking in creating the first legal definition of street harassment in the United States, calling it “disrespectful, offensive or threatening statements, gestures or other conduct directed at an individual in a high-risk area without the individual’s consent and based on the individual’s actual or perceived … protected trait identified in the [DC] Human Rights Act of 1977.” It also uniquely focuses on prevention through education instead of criminalization.

Specifically, the SHPA establishes an advisory committee on street harassment that will propose model policies and training materials to be implemented in the District; require the Office of Human Rights (OHR) to conduct the first citywide survey on street harassment; and require OHR to conduct a public information campaign about street harassment. Further, grant money will be provided for street harassment awareness programs.

When D.C. Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau introduced the SHPA in 2017, she said her goal was to allow “people who have experienced harassment to feel safer on our streets” and to help all residents to “understand what street harassment is, understand how to call it out, and how to intervene.”

The advocacy organization Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), which uses community-based solutions through an intersectional lens to address street harassment, was instrumental in the passage of SHPA. Deputy director Chantal Coudoux noted that one of its strengths is that is was “developed and advocated for by directly impacted community members and organizations led by survivors of harassment and assault” through speak-outs and in-person and online story-sharing. For instance Councilmember Nadeau hosted a roundtable on street harassment during which dozens of members of the public shared their personal experiences.

Until recently, most people in the United States and abroad did not think street harassment was a serious enough problem to warrant legislation. Now, because so many survivors have shared their stories and national research backs up those stories, more people like Councilmember Nadeau treat it as a serious problem.

Just this month, the Chamber of Deputies in Romania voted to establish a fine for “harassment, sexual harassment and psychological harassment in public and private places.” Simona-Maria Chirciu, Romania’s leading anti–street harassment activist, gave input on the language.

In the Philippines in late June, Manila’s governing body passed a city ordinance to “penalize all forms of sexual harassment in public spaces, such as catcalling, wolf-whistling, leering, groping, and many others."

Anti–street harassment measures are pending in other places. In France, for instance, a national law seems poised for passage in the Senate. In the U.K., Nottinghamshire classified misogyny (including street harassment) as a hate crime, and applying that standard nationally is under debate. A law is under discussion in the Chilean Senate thanks to the advocacy of organizations like Observatorio Contra el Acoso Callejero (OCAC) Chile. OCAC Chile’s area director Natalia Muñoz Castillo said, “It is important to acknowledge that safety and respect in the streets must exist across the whole country.”

In recent years, through its Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Global Initiative, UN Women, the U.N. group dedicated to gender equality, also has encouraged the passage of anti–street harassment legislation. “Measures to enhance the rule of law is a key principle in strategic and effective prevention,” the program’s global advisor Laura Capobianco said. “It is important that these measures take account of and help to further advance the implementation of international norms and standards in ensuring that all women can use city spaces free of fear and experience of sexual harassment.”

While the goal of any law on street harassment is to prevent it from occurring, typically, the laws that have passed are focused on penalizing harassers, be that through a fine, jail time, or, in a few cases, a mandatory educational session. In contrast to other legislation, the new law in D.C. is unique for not stipulating any penalty for committing street harassment.

Councilmember Nadeau said that SHPA focuses on education and culture change instead of criminalization, since the latter could disproportionately penalize the very communities most vulnerable to harassment, such as communities of color. Anti-harassment advocacy groups like CASS agree. Coudoux said CASS supports “a public health lens that recognizes the scope and impact of harassment on marginalized communities and develops solutions that are rooted in community, not incarceration or criminalization.”

Activists in other places also would like to see laws that focus on education rather than criminalization. For instance, in France, the anti–street harassment organization Stop Harcèlement de rue was invited to give input on the law under consideration, and the group’s national secretary Marine Stoll said they (unsuccessfully) advocated for more prevention efforts, including education for youth. “For us it's only with education that street harassment can be stopped,” she told me.

British street harassment researcher Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray agrees. She notes that the “work we need in terms of prevention and justice for targets … will come more from state investment in programs to change gender norms than in formal criminal processes.” She cites Dr. Bianca Fileborn’s research in Australia as evidence. Research participants, all of whom had experienced street harassment, advocated for a justice response focused on transforming cultural and structural norms.

Advocates in places where laws have passed report that frequently there is no plan nor funding allocated for training police officers on the law nor publicizing the law, so these newly passed laws have limited utility. The SHPA is unusual for including an allocation of funds and timelines for completing each phase — from forming the advisory committee to conducting the survey to rolling out an awareness campaign. 

When asked what she envisions Washington, D.C., will be like in five years because of the SHPA, Councilmember Nadeau said she hopes there will be a cultural shift where street harassment “is viewed as an unacceptable public behavior, as it should be.”

For her part, Coudoux hopes that the SHPA can ensure that in the future “everyone, particularly those most severely impacted by street harassment of all kinds, can access resources and navigate their daily lives free from fear of harassment and assault.”

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