MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine activists on Tuesday welcomed a new law signed by the president that prohibits a range of acts of sexual harassment, but said it puts him in its crosshairs given his history of crude sexual remarks.
Philippine officials on Monday belatedly released a copy of Republic Act 11313, known as the “Safe Spaces Act,” that President Rodrigo Duterte signed in April and penalizes such acts as catcalling, wolf-whistling and offensive sexual jokes.
Activists said Duterte is among those who could be targeted by the law.
“It’s basically ironic for him to do that because he is the primary purveyor of misogynism and catcalling,” said Jean Enriquez of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific, which fights exploitation and abuse of women.
“We are hoping that somehow, this will change the public consciousness, but as long as you have a president that’s primarily reinforcing that culture, it remains an uphill battle for many women,” Enriquez said.
Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of the leftwing human rights group Karapatan, said “It is the height of irony that one of the most misogynistic and sexist government officials has signed into law a measure that enumerates acts which he may later be charged with.”
Supporters of Duterte, known for his brash speaking style and speeches laden with expletives and sexual jokes, defend him by saying he only wants to entertain crowds. They cite regulations he introduced as a longtime mayor to protect women’s rights.
“When he cracks jokes, it’s intended to make people laugh, never to offend,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters Monday, although many women have openly taken offense at Duterte’s remarks.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Enriquez and several other activists filed a complaint against Duterte, then still a mayor, before the Commission on Human Rights for a joke about an Australian missionary who was gang raped by inmates in a jail in 1989.
“I got mad because she was raped. Yes, that’s one, but she was very beautiful, the mayor should have been first. Disappointing,” Duterte said, bringing the crowd to laughter.
The commission found Duterte guilty of violating a law protecting women and left it to two government agencies to take punitive actions. Duterte, however, won the presidency by a wide margin and was sworn into office in mid-2016, making him immune from lawsuits.
The new law expands coverage of a 1995 act that declared sexual harassment unlawful in workplaces, educational and training centers. The “Safe Spaces Act” penalizes a range of acts including catcalling, wolf-whistling, intrusive gazing, cursing, misogynistic acts, sexist slurs and persistent telling of sexual jokes in public, including in streets, churches, parks, restaurants, recreational areas, bars or online.
Other offenses include stalking, exposing 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.”
Restaurants, bars, cinemas and other places of recreation are required to install clearly visible warning signs against violations, including a hotline number to allow rapid reporting of offenses, and to designate an officer to receive complaints or apprehend perpetrators.
Punishments include fines ranging from 1,000 pesos ($20) and a gender sensitivity seminar for first-time offenders to 100,000 pesos ($2,000) for third offenses. Jail terms range from a week for a second-time offender to six months for third-time offenders, depending on the gravity of the offense.
Foreign violators will be deported after serving a jail term and paying fines.
When he was mayor of southern Davao city in the mid-1990s, Duterte signed regulations to protect women and children, including a ban on swimsuit competitions, sex tours, forced marriages and any form of discrimination. But critics point to a history of sexist remarks that date back to his mayoral days.
Last year, Duterte publicly ordered troops to shoot female communist guerrillas in the vagina to render them “useless.” Karapatan reacted by saying Duterte had distinguished himself “as a frothing-in-the-mouth fascist who incites the worst violations of international humanitarian law.”
Duterte was also criticized for kissing a married woman on the lips last year in front of a large Filipino audience in South Korea. When Duterte asked if she could explain to her husband that the action would be just a joke, she said yes, and the president leaned in and kissed her as the audience erupted in cheers.
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the main author of the law, encouraged the public to read it to protect themselves and others and make it work.
“The law is only as good as how it is implemented. We need to test the law and make sure it serves its purpose,” Hontiveros said. “Report sexual harassers.”