Adriana Lopera is a 36-year-old nurse and supporter of Portugal’s anti-austerity Left Bloc party. Fed up of being catcalled by men as she walked down the street, and realising that this problem affects all women, she decided to take a stand.
In 2013, Lopera took part in a debate held by the Socialist Forum, which kicked off with Lopera verbally abusing the attendees as they walked into the conference.
“It was huge and I realised afterwards that everyone was talking about it,” she says.
“I even started receiving threats on Facebook because I appeared on TV. One of the things I said was that when you are [verbally] assaulted on the street you’re not being asked for directions. They’re saying things like ‘I would put it in you like this or like that’. They’re insulting you.”
The conference led to a heated debate in Portugal and was ridiculed by both politicians and commentators.
But fast-forward two years and in 2015 Portugal’s Social Democratic Party made verbal sexual abuse a crime, carrying a prison sentence of up to a year.
“Whoever harasses another person, practising before her acts exhibitionist in character, formulating proposals of a sexual tenor or embarrassing her with contact of a sexual nature, is punished with a penalty of imprisonment of a year, or a penalty fine of up to 120 euros if a more serious penalty is not applicable under any other legal provision,” reads the new wording of Article 170 of the penal code.
While sections of the Portuguese media have referred to such verbal abuse as piropos, or “compliments,” for campaigners, the amended law provides some much needed clarity.
“If a woman is at a bus station or in the subway and someone starts saying ‘I want to do this or that to you,’ this forces that person to be transported to a world of sexuality. And he is crossing a boundary. It is a violation that forces the victim to create a sexual intimacy that she doesn’t want,” criminal lawyer Ines Ferreira Leite tells Equal Times.
Ferreira Leite co-authored a report after Portugal became the first country to ratify the Istanbul Convention– by which the Council of Europe sets out standards to protect victims of gender-based violence – in 2013. She was also involved in advocating for amendments to Article 170.
“Before, sexual contact was included but it was restrictive. You had to touch the victim, so we decided to include threatening and intrusive comments,” says Ferreira Leite.
She says she has been surprised by some of the reactions to the amendments.
“Some men think that [harassment] means freedom of speech. That it is a compliment and that they shouldn’t have to walk around silent.”
But the amended law has its limits, Leite explains. “Not every comment is a crime; it has to have sexual context or a pornographic reference. Saying that someone is pretty doesn’t count.”
“Sexism is ingrained in our culture”
The necessity for a measure to combat verbal abuse toward women was first proposed by the non-profit organisation UMAR (Union of Women for Alternatives and Answers), which received funding in 2010 from the Dutch government to travel around the country and raise awareness of the issue.
“We found that most women had been verbally assaulted on the street and also that both men and women confused sexual assault with seduction or praise,” says UMAR head Maria Jose Magalhaes. “They didn’t know what assault was. There was an idea that it wasn’t serious because sexism is so ingrained in our culture.”
The radical Left Bloc party – which was founded by four feminists and whose leader, Catarina Martins, is the only woman leaderamongst Portugal’s major parties – took the discussion of verbal assault to parliament in 2014.
Left Bloc MP and sociologist Sandra Cunha says the law was necessary to show that sexual assault is unacceptable.
“It was necessary to raise awareness that this problem exists and to stop naturalising this kind of behaviour. It is almost normal for a women to walk down the street here and hear aggressions,” Cunha points out.
Several other countries have taken similar moves to tackle the problem of verbal sexual abuse. Belgium banned sexist insults in 2014 and last year Peru made street harassment punishable with up to 12 years in prison. Meanwhile, Argentina is poised to ban catcalling, with a fine of up to US$775.
While opponents describe this kind of punitive action as a blow to free expression, advocates for the criminalisation of verbal harassment say that it not only protects women but that it is also a way to discourage more serious crimes against women, as well as the scourge of trenchant sexism.
According to the Women Against Violence Europe network, 38 per cent of women in Portugal over the age of 18 have experienced physical, psychological and/or sexual violence. In the workplace, while women make up 42.3 percent of Portugal’s labour force, only 6.2 per cent of women are in leadership roles at the country’s 500 biggest companies, according to a study by the business research company D&B.
For Teresa Morais, a Portuguese deputy and former minister for culture, equality and citizenship, the situation facing women in the country is a mixed bag.
“I have never personally felt discriminated, and have carried out my work in equal terms with men, but I recognise that there are differences in access to work by men and women in Portugal just like in other countries,” she says.
“On the other hand, we have seen a rise in participation by women in parliament and mainly down to the quota law, a third of women hold seats in parliament,” Morais adds, while regretting that women in the local authorities are scarce.
Although Morais recognises the importance of quotas for big companies seeking to promote equality, she says that she hopes one day they won’t be necessary. Perhaps one day, measures to stop catcalling on the street won’t be necessary either.