Critics say Mexico City lacks plan to combat sexual harassment

Mexico City's metro is one of the busiest in the world, transporting around 4.5 million people every day. (Credit: 16:9clue/Flickr)

Mexico City’s initiative to combat sexual harassment on the city’s public transit system – handing out rape whistles to women – was met with ridicule and outrage after its initial launch in May. Half a year later, critics say the whistles haven’t stopped gender violence and are calling for more integral changes.

Sexual assaults in the Mexican capital has been on the rise for years, according to the National Statistics Institute, with around 3 million attacks from 2010-15. On the city’s overcrowded metro system, at least 126,000 women suffered acts of sexual aggression just last year, according to figures compiled by the capital’s Institute of Women.

This drove Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera to crack down on the disturbing rise in assaults with new initiatives such as handing out white whistles to women to “help them to warn of possible crimes” so that police would be directed to respond to the scene:

The backlash to the initiative was immediate. Feminist and women’s rights groups ridiculed Mancera for patronizing women instead of addressing the perpetrators of the crimes and for suggesting police would be at-the-ready to respond to such incidences.

Feminist groups led thousands in protesting gender violence in the city’s streets and flooded social media channels with the hashtag El Pito De Manceraa double entendre that means “Mancera’s whistle” or “Mancera’s dick.”

Some even suggested the government could use other musical instruments to fight crime, such as anti-extortion trumpets:

“It really polarized the government from the feminist movement,” said Ana Pecova, director of the women’s rights organization Equis, in an interview with Humanosphere. “We were very critical of [the initiative], it didn’t make any sense. …What happens when you use the whistle? Who’s going to come? Who’s going to help you?”

The Mexico City government has said the whistle measure is just one of many measures the city will implement to address the rise in sexual aggression. Equis placed a request for information on the city’s plan, said Pecova, but was disappointed with the lack of diagnostics, evaluation plan and indicators.

The government also pointed out the success of distributing whistles in Yangon, Myanmar, where a similar initiative gave whistles to women on buses – albeit on a smaller scale and in an environment different from Mexico City.

Whistles are not the city’s first attempt to lessen the dangers of its transit system. For years, Mexico city has offered women-only subway cars as well as designated pink buses for women – a practice also used in Japan, Iran, India and Brazil.

These have faced similar backlash in Mexico City, however, for normalizing violence and putting the responsibility on women to avoid sexual harassment.

“This cannot be the final measure; we have to see this as a temporary measure. It’s affirmative action. It’s positive discrimination,” Pecova said, adding that the city doesn’t even provide enough space for all women to use them. As of now, she says, only around two wagons for women have been added on each subway train and only on peak transit hours.

Critics of Mexico City’s attempts to stem sexual aggression have argued the solution is not in the penal system, partly since almost no victims report the incidents – out of the metro system’s 126,000 women who suffered acts of sexual aggression last year, only 300 reported the incident to authorities, according to the capital’s Institute of Women.

Most victims avoid the process, which often requires spending the whole day at the prosecutor’s office, retelling their story and sometimes returning to the scene of the crime with investigators. Some women are also discouraged from the process because it would require them to miss a day of work, said Pecova, who suggests alternatives such as monetary compensation for the victim who missed a day’s pay and enforcing community service or a gender training course for perpetrators.

More importantly, she added, the city needs to stop acts of sexual aggression before they ever occur.

“It’s really important to start thinking about prevention. We need to start working with men and investing in men,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s just more pressure on the justice system that is already facing a heavy burden.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com