Whenever she left her Buenos Aires, Argentina house, Aixa Rizzo was met with whistles, catcalls, and sexually explicit chants from a group of male construction workers. The 20-year-old said that the street harassment was a daily occurrence that persisted even after she asked the men to leave her alone.
“One day,” she said in a YouTube video about the experience, “They started saying to each other, ‘Where should we take her?’ Three of them started following me, so I stood still and sprayed pepper spray at them.”
Rizzo said she had decided to carry pepper spray because she feared that would turn into something worse. Her efforts at self-defense only prompted an onslaught of verbal abuse from the men.
“They started to insult me, calling me crazy and a piece of shit,” she said looking straight into the camera. “I took the first taxi I could find. I tried to go to the authorities to report them, but they told me, ‘Well, for just a catcall we can’t do anything.’ But when I told them what happened, he agreed to take my report.”
Rizzo’s experiences are not uncommon in Argentina. A study conducted by a local organization found that nearly 95 percent of women have been catcalled about their appearance or sexuality on the street.
“Lewd comments are just the tip of the iceberg that manifests itself in domestic violence,” Victoria Donda, an Argentine lawmaker who sponsored a bill to make street harassment a crime, said.
The bill would fund programs to raise awareness about sexual abuse in schools and in workplaces, and also allow women to report sexual harassment in public places as a crime. It has widespread support from across party lines, and similar proposals have been brought up on a local level in the Argentine capital.
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to call for an end to gender-based violence in the country, after a 14-year-old girl was allegedly beaten to death by her boyfriend. They rallied under the phrase, “ni una menos,” or “not one more woman lost” to gender violence.
Domestic violence and femicide appear to be a growing trend in Argentina and a major problem across the Western Hemisphere, and many believe a culture of “machismo” perpetuates the crimes. More than half of the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide are in the Americas. Some countries in the region have moved to address street harassment in an effort to create a safer climate for women.
In March, Peru became the first country in South America to enact a law against street harassment, and a proposal to penalize street sexual harassment with up 180 days in jail has been proposed by legislatures in Paraguay.
But many fear invoking these laws could prompt further harassment while on the street. Unless a police officer is standing by, it might be difficult to report street harassment and apprehend a potential perpetrator. Beyond apprehending someone, providing evidence to prove a case of street harassment is no easy task — and likely seen by many to be more hassle than its worth in contexts where street harassment may be a daily occurrence.
In much of the United States, for instance, laws criminalize street harassment, street harassers rarely face legal repercussions for their actions.
“Although several legal remedies could potentially be employed to combat street harassment, the current state of the legal system makes success highly unlikely,” the advocacy organization Hollerback! noted on its website.
In October, the group released a video that showed one woman, Shoshana B. Roberts, being harassed and even followed as she walked through New York City. Hollerback! claimed that she was catcalled more than 100 times during the course of a 10 hour walk. Some of those taunts and jeers were compiled into a two minute video which has been viewed more than 40 million times.
“On the one hand, we’re shocked — shocked! — by the harassment on the video,” Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at New York University wrote, “But we don’t have the legal guts to stop it.”
But, as he points out, that’s not necessarily because the laws aren’t in place to do so.
He describes laws from around the country which penalize street harassment – many of them from more than a century ago, when its culprits were called “mashers.” In 1913, an Omaha, Neb. judge went so far as to lay out specific fines for specific catcalls that would have offenders pay $5 for calling a woman a “chicken,” $10 for calling her “honey-bunch,” and a whopping $20 for referring to her as “baby doll.”
“And today’s mashers could be prosecuted, too, under measures that are still on the books,” Zimmerman wrote. “Back in the era of anti-mashing measures, only a handful of men were actually prosecuted for catcalling women or — more commonly — for physically accosting them. Yet even the occasional arrest sent a stern warning to the rest of society: Sexual harassment was both illegal and reprehensible. As the Roberts video illustrates, many men still aren’t getting that message. A few arrests might remind them.”
That’s what Aixa Rizzo hopes for too.
“Sexual assault exists,” she said at the end of her own YouTube video, “And the impunity around it is more than clear.”