The revolt against sexual predation in the workplace is in full cry in the United States. But what about in Latin America, where machismo was branded and the border between seduction and assault has been elastic and riddled with legal indulgences?
The outrage may be more selective and change agonizingly slow, but even in the most patriarchal societies of the Americas, the pushback is gathering force. From Mexico City to Buenos Aires, a new generation is speaking up, driving policy changes and calling out the creeps in power for whom a leer and grope -- or far worse -- were part of the script.
All of Latin America has signed the United Nations convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, and 31 countries had taken steps to outlaw sexual harassment by 2016, up from 24 in 2013. And the bureaucrats are taking their cues from the streets.
Well before US movie mogul Harvey Weinstein heard the gong, a leading man in Brazilian soap operas was brought to heel when one of his studio victims went public about his crimes in a feminist blog. Scores of celebrities rallied to her defense in T-shirts emblazoned with “Mess with one woman, you mess with us all.” More big targets are sure to follow. “We knew we were going up against one of the most visible male public figures in Brazil,” said Manoela Miklos, who edits a blog about women and gender, where the story of the soap opera cad first was posted. “There are plenty more stories to tell.”
As early as 2015, Brazilian women’s rights groups enjoined women who’d suffered sexual aggression in the workplace to share their experiences online, through the hashtag “My First Harassment,” a sly send-up of a once popular advertisement for trainer bras. More than 80,000 responded.
Despite these advances and the boldness of protests, protecting women from unwanted advances is still fraught, and victims push back at considerable risk. Of the 25 nations with the highest rates of femicide -- killing of women because they are women -- 14 were in Latin America, according to data compiled by the latest Small Arms Survey.
The story of 72-year-old Maria da Penha Maia Fernandes is a brutal case in point. Shot by a jealous husband, she battled the courts and official indolence for years from a wheelchair to bring him to justice and Brazil to its senses. After a drawn-out legal battle, and a reprimand from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Brazil passed a law to severely punish sex crimes, but 11 years later the fight to end impunity for sex offenders still rages. “Brazil is better with its new laws to protect women, but enforcement is still a big problem,” Maria da Penha told me. “Many men in Brazil were brought up seeing their fathers beat their mothers, and thinking that violence against women was natural.”
This year, protesters have demanded legal safeguards in Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico, where violence against women has spiked. In Argentina, the brutal rape and killing of a 16-year-old last year sparked a national outcry that reverberated in its traditionally male-packed congress. Protests against the violence helped lead to legislation that recently made Argentina the fifth Latin American country to require gender parity in candidate lists for parliamentary representation.
By 2015, some 16 Latin American countries had made femicide a crime, up four-fold from 2010. But women’s rights advocates argue that protecting victims also takes preemptive action. Hence the popularity of the “violentometro,” a color-coded visual aid which teaches women to scale sexual aggression, from unbidden jokes to femicide.
The growing effort to change long ingrained attitudes often has a welcome creative side. One group in Mexico protested public transportation predators with a “penis seat,” a subway seat modeled after an anatomically correct, naked male torso. And in Peru, contestants in a recent beauty contest chose to flaunt statistics of femicide rather than their measurements. In Latin America, as elsewhere it seems, the struggle against machismo is a wide-ranging work in progress.
By Mac Margolis
Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. -- Ed.