Who Wants to Know!? The Government responds to “Femme de la rue” …

Hollaback! Brussels replies...
“Femme de la rue”, a 22-minute documentary by Sofie Peeters, is sending out international shock waves. For 2 weeks now the debate has been booming in Belgium; we’ve heard opinions from every corner, contradicting statements out every window and these last days the world has been catching up… More and more people are voicing their opinions, as well as stepping up to share their harassment stories (just check out the #harcelementderue #streetharassment hashtags on twitter)! We hear the same shouts over and over again: street harassment and sexism is not just a Brussels or a Belgian problem!!
Following the debate actively, Hollaback! Brussels has read some eye-opening opinion pieces and heard some dangerous generalizations…. But what surprised us most of all was the Brussels’ and Federal government’s response to “Femme de la rue”.
Legislatively speaking, what will happen?*

1. From September 2012 onwards, the Brussels Government will hand out administrative fines (250 euros) to men that harass women on the street. Depending upon the degree of harassment, the fines can lead up to a maximum sentence of 4 years in prison. In an official statement the Brussels Government advises women to come forward to the police, where, they are assured, complaints about street harassment will be taken seriously and the necessary action will follow.
What is currently unclear: Do they only target men harassing women? Do these fines only include sexist remarks? What about sexual assault, public masturbation, and other kinds of gender-based violence?

2. On a Federal level, Joelle Milquet, Minister of the Interior and of Equal Opportunities, is proposing a new law addressing sexism. What is still unclear is whether this new law only refers to street harassment, or if it will address sexism on multiple levels and situations (home, work, public spaces, media). The opening of the new political year (October-November 2012) will reveal more details on this new proposal for law.

3. In relation to recent violent homophobic incidents in Belgium, there is updated legislation on a Federal level that addresses Hate Crimes (Crimes based on discrimination like homophobia, racism, religious beliefs). The punishment has recently been extended so that it ranges from 5 to 10 years imprisonment for assault and battery, and up to life imprisonment for murder, depending on the determined severity of the crime. However, what is still unclear is whether or not these changes to Hate Crime legislation include in their scope crimes of rape or assault that are based on Sexism or Misogny.


Our Position!

We are very happy to witness how Belgian Politicians are acknowledging the issue and making legislative plans to address sexism and street harassment. We’d like to encourage them further but we also would like to see a deeper analysis and research for the problem at hand.
Sexism on the streets takes roots in a society that is not (as) equal (as we think it is). Sexism doesn’t only manifest itself on the streets. We find it also in the media, in the workplace, at home, on public transport and other spaces. We urge the Belgian society to not be tempted by electoral band-aids placed on a problem that needs deeper inquiry and transverse solutions.

Harassment ranges from whistles and sexist comments all the way to groping, following, public masturbation and physical assault. It is a problem that affects many people on a daily basis, having long-lasting and sometimes permanent consequences for their lives. A harassment-free society that is based on mutual respect is a society where equality is an attainable goal. Solutions to achieve this goal are beyond the regulation of giving harassers fines.

Hollaback! Brussels feels that fines as a singular solution to combat Street Harassment is a half measure for many reasons. Handing out fines to harassers will not necessarily end in achieving respect for the people who they were harassing. Some harassers will not be affected by the 250 euro amount.

In addition, we as an organization wish to acknowledge the difficulties that people face of reporting and thus ‘proving’ street harassment and harassment of other kinds. Our goal is to empower and encourage people to speak up against the harassment and perpetration that happens to them. In order to accomplish this, we need the support and active involvement of the entire society, deciding to set in motion an environment where everyone agrees that it is unacceptable for one individual to harass another. If the whole society can agree that it is a basic human right to have respect and safety in daily life, we, together can start handling sexualized violence and bullying.
If the fines follow the inaccuracy of a part of the current debate and wrongly accuse one population of being responsible for harassment, we will be completely off track in addressing the problem.  It will cause us to further underestimate the breadth of types of harassment, multiple locations of its occurrence, and the variety of types of harassers.
Harassers, like rapists, or those who abuse children, come from all racial and class backgrounds. And this is because harassment and assault is deeper than the color of our skin or the income brackets of our neighborhoods. It is about an international culture in which gender-based violence is simply seen as OK. Some people say it is a ‘’cultural’’ thing– apparently it just well happens to be everyone’s culture.

A deeper Analysis into the roots and causes of sexism and street harassment. Partner with organizations to broaden the debate on value systems currently in place in our society, including the interrelatedness of issues of racism, homophobia, sexism and other types of discrimination.

Research! All levels of the Belgian and Brussels government cannot use 1 film as research material. We need unbiased, comprehensive research. As a good example, please see the results of Cornell University/Hollaback! for Studies already conducted, Findings and Further Action Points as well as Further research needed.

Public Awareness Campaigns!  (See the Example of Public Transport PSA from Washington DC) and Bystander campaigns

Education! Incorporation of anti-street harassment curriculum into sexual education and perhaps already existing anti-bullying curricula. Role Model programs in Youth Centers and Universities. Partner with cultural centers and local organizations to provide prevention education against trends of Sexism, Homophobia and Sexual violence practices.

Strengthening and streamlining the claim-filing system for Harassment, Rape and Hate
crimes. (Side Note: when rape is actually reported and the accusations are followed through by the government, punishment for rape are sometimes only up to 2 years in prison. Inter-marital rape laws have only been established in the past +/- 20 years in Belgium).

Urging the Institute for the Equality of Men and Women to broaden the scope of issues they address to include harassment and sexist-related issues. Urge them to become a resource and complaint-filing center for those affected by these issues.

Education program for law enforcement and public officials to provide them with tools and resources on how to react when people come to them for help with Harassment.

Engagement of Local Businesses such as cafés, bars and cinemas to make a commitment to Harassment-Free Zones.

Community Safety Audits: How To!

Share Your Story! Talk about it! And KEEP talking about it! www.Brussels.ihollaback.org

Street actions! Reclaim the streets together in diverse groups, and start a dialogue with bystanders.

City Council Hearing with Public Testimony:
In October 2010 in New York City, Hollaback! testified at the first ever hearing on street harassment and drew in a standing room only crowd. As a result of hearing multiple testimonies on harassment and suggestions on how to tackle the problem, advocates were consistent in their request for a city-wide study of street harassment.


Your Hollaback!Brussels team: Anna, Angelika, Julie and Ingrid.

* There is a Brussels Governing body, a Federal (Belgian) governing body, and then there are the separate Flanders and Walloon governing bodies.

6 Responses

Author comments are in a darker gray color for you to easily identify the posts author in the comments

  1. […] Hollaback Brussels issues a public statement in response to the government’s new 250 euro street harassment fines. They write, “We are very happy to witness how Belgian Politicians are acknowledging the issue and making legislative plans to address sexism and street harassment. We’d like to encourage them further but we also would like to see a deeper analysis and research for the problem at hand.” They offer a ton of great suggestions and alternatives to criminalization. Check them out, here. […]

  2. Evie says:

    Great post!

    One question: when people want to publish their stories the hollaback sites only focus on street harassment as far as I know. Do we need separate websites for people to tell of other stories, what do you think?

  3. hollaback! brussels says:

    Dear Evie,
    Hollaback! really is “just” about street harassment which of course can end in sexual assault etc. But there are other great sites where people can tell their stories (e.g. rape victims). For example, have a look at Project Unbreakable http://projectunbreakable.tumblr.com

  4. […] of succeeding. Such laws have little chance of being more than publicity stunts because public sexual talk is a symptom and not the problem. The real problem is not rude brown men but that our societies […]

  5. […] naar aanleiding van de docu van Sofie Peeters en de antwoorden van politici zelf een antwoord met interessante suggesties voor verandering gegeven […]

  6. Agnieszka says:

    Do you follow development of the situation? Has the new law been established?

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