CIVICUS speaks to Natalia Muñoz Castillo, director of International Affairs at the Observatory Against Street Harassment (OCAC), a Chilean civil society organisation that works to make public spaces safe and egalitarian, making them accessible to the most vulnerable, and specifically to women, children, adolescents and LGBTI people.
1.Why an organisation dedicated to the issue of street harassment? Why is this an important issue in terms of women’s rights?
While there are indeed other outstanding issues in which women’s lives and health are directly at stake, street sexual harassment is also a real problem in Chile. And it is an issue that is difficult to address because it is supposedly attached to our culture. For a long time it was considered to be part of our Latin American culture and upheld as “the way Chilean men are”, and therefore it was believed that there was nothing you could do to guarantee your safety in the street. We believe it is unfair for women to be second-rate persons and to be forced to use the public space in fear. What we try to do at OCAC is challenge preconceptions, take ownership of public space and promote change so that we can feel safe without being constantly on guard against the possibility of sexual assault. In Chile, giving a woman a “compliment” in the street is widely accepted, it is considered normal and natural; however, it actually violates the right of women to walk around safely. This practice has endured for many years, and in that sense it is “traditional”, but that does not make it acceptable. If it causes you fear and insecurity, and limits your prospects for the only reason that you are a woman – it makes you avoid certain routes, restrict your schedule, change the way you dress or move – then it amounts to gender-based violence.
2. In which ways does the use of public space – that is, the restrictions linked to the understanding of the place that each is meant to occupy – relate to the broader problem of gender inequality?
The female gender is generally associated with the private sphere. The privileged participation of males in the public sphere translates into better salaries, greater security in the streets and sexual freedom. When women dare to cross these barriers of patriarchy, societal norms immediately set the limits. If I, a woman, leave the private space and try to move freely in the public space, I become a target for violence. And society will blame me for whatever happens to me: it was my fault because I was in a place where I should not have been, because I was dressed in a way I shouldn’t have, or because I was out at a time when I should have been home. So gender inequality is visible both inside and outside the home. The Observatory focuses on what goes on outside, while other organisations focus on, for instance, sexual violence within the home, dating violence and other violations of rights that occur in the sphere of private or intimate relationships. In sum, OCAC focuses its efforts on addressing sexual violence taking place in the streets, and occurring when women seek to occupy a public space that traditionally, according to societal norms, does not belong to them.
3. You have probably been told a thousand times: “Chile has a female president, what else do you want?
That’s exactly right. And we reply: The fact that Chile has a female president [Michelle Bachelet, president in 2006-10 and re-elected in 2014] is no guarantee that all women in our society are being treated equally. In fact, the president herself is portrayed in the media in an extremely sexist fashion. Congress representatives such as former student leaders Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola also receive sexist press coverage and public opinion also reflects these views. People refer to the president in demeaning ways by focusing on her weight or her body, which has never happened to male presidents. Even when they reach prominent positions in national politics, women are still subjected to violence linked to traits that have nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs. They are permanently questioned and assessed in terms of their “feminine” attributes and for their bodies above anything else.
4. As feminist activists, have you and your colleagues faced similar stereotypes?
I am also a teacher, and when I talk to my students about gender issues they often react by saying “but prof, you don’t look like a feminist!” It’s just that I don’t fit into their stereotypes. They say “but you are married”, meaning I am not a lesbian, or they point out that I have long hair, or that I wear makeup, or that I don’t mistreat male students but instead treat them all equally. This surprises them because their point of departure is the characterisation of a feminist as a very angry woman who rejects everything feminine and wants to vent her anger against men – in short, a “feminazi”.
This conversation helps my students feel that gender issues are much closer to them and gives them a different point of entrance into feminism – by watching my actions, and particularly my emphasis on equal treatment. As representatives of a feminist organisation, we are subjected to public scrutiny, so we need to be careful of, for instance, the ways we refer to men and women. And we strongly insist that the current situation is not the fault of individual men, but of the patriarchal structure within which all of us, both men and women, have been raised.
In fact, although there are many women in our organisation, and our directors are all female (for reasons of experience with these issues as well as trajectory within the organisation), ours is not strictly a women’s organisation, since many males also work in it.
5. On its website, the Observatory does not define itself as a feminist organisation. Is that label still too much weight to carry?
This was a discussion that we did have in the beginning. When the organisation was founded, in 2013, there was still some fear of the connotations the label could carry. Still then, being a feminist was not “cool” in Latin America, it was not in fashion, so the label was not all that desirable. But after a while we realised that what we were doing was grounded in feminism, and that we needed to claim the label and see what happened – and if it was not well received, then bad luck. So we started presenting ourselves as feminists, as we do on Twitter and Facebook.
As our work began to take hold – our posters were there in the metro, our memes circulated on social media – we noticed feminism was becoming more popular among younger generations. Among young women, today it is almost unconceivable not to be a feminist. I may have a biased perspective, because I am talking about the people I interact with in my surroundings, but nowadays my students are very aware of what harassment is, they recognise gender differences and inequalities, they know that respect requires and understand what things should not be done… I am not sure I would say feminism is now fashionable, but at least it is more normal: you can say you are a feminist and you will not be attacked from all flanks. It is possible to have a meaningful conversation, and even to quote feminist organisations to support your argument… this may have something to do with access to information, which is much more open today. Internet access has educated the public on these issues.
6. What strategies – advocacy, campaigning, mobilisation – does OCAC use?
As an organisation we work in various fields, and we work in teams of professionals specialised in law, sociology and political science, communications and design, and psychology, pedagogy and social work, depending on the case. The International Networks team, which I lead, works alongside “sister” organisations in several Latin American countries: Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Uruguay. In some of these countries, and particularly in Guatemala and Nicaragua, the situation is much more difficult than in Chile. Here in Chile, street sexual harassment usually takes less-than-drastic forms: you feel insecure and limited in your freedom, but phenomena such as gang rapes are rare, while they are fairly common in other countries.
So we collaborate with our counterparts in these countries by producing joint campaigns at the regional level and supporting the communications work of our weaker nodes. For those countries where violence against women and girls is more serious, such as Guatemala, we have devised stronger awareness-raising campaigns. The demands we put forward for our governments to address are not the same everywhere: in those cases, for instance, rather than a law against street harassment more basic security measures are required, including protection against femicide. We try to be a source of support for these organisations, because they also feel much more abandoned by the law than we do. After all, civil society organisations mostly have one another for support.
In turn, the Legal Advisory team provides legal support to victims of street sexual harassment, and it was also the one that drafted and promoted the Law of Street Respect (Ley de Respeto Callejero) that is currently under discussion in the Chilean Senate Human Rights Commission. The Communications team works in sharing experiences, making public denunciations and generating content for campaigns. We also have a Studies team whose research feeds into public debate, outreach efforts and campaigns; an Interventions team that works with communities, schools and public opinion to educate the public about street harassment, and also accompanies victims; and a Management and Projects team that develops alliances, seeks donations and guarantees funding for our initiatives.
It is important to note that while we emerged as an organisation with a focus on street sexual harassment, which is therefore at the core of our work, we embrace the feminist demand in its entirety. We therefore have a clear-cut position on femicide and we support the #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”) campaign and the legalisation of abortion. However, street mobilisation does not rank high among our strategies: although we regularly join in mobilisations summoned by other organisations, OCAC itself rarely calls for mobilisation. Rather than massively taking to the streets, we focus on using to our favour a variety of platforms – social media, traditional media, institutional spaces, communications with elected officials – that are available for citizens to make themselves heard. We consider ourselves to be neither street feminists nor academic feminists, but we rather try to spread our message throughout society. So we try to be present in the media, in schools and universities as well as in streets, marketplaces and public squares.
A recent campaign we took out there was #Notedavergüenza (“Aren’t you ashamed”). We addressed it to men, whom we invited to reflect on consent in order to understand that, in the absence of explicit consent, many behaviours that are relatively common in fact constitute sexual violence. Besides spreading it on social media, we took the campaign to street markets in order to talk to people about it. Our goal is to establish a dialogue, introduce our organisation to people and have them commit to making a change and spreading it.
6. Have you faced any obstacles, cultural or otherwise, when doing this work?
Cultural obstacles are there, but mostly among older generations. Chile was the last country in the region to legalise divorce, and is among those that still ban abortion under any circumstances. However, this is a legacy of the dictatorship (1973-1990) rather than a deeply rooted cultural trait. In fact, until the late 1960s Chilean women had access to therapeutic abortion, under lax conditions that made it relatively accessible. It was under the Pinochet regime that legislation went back to unmitigated prohibition, and this remained untouched as democracy was restored, among other reasons because the coalition that came to power and ruled for many years was either led by or prominently included the Christian Democratic Party. Thus the law remained aligned with Christian doctrine.
While the law remained frozen in time, citizens’ mentality changed. And in some areas, and to some extent, this had repercussions on the law, which began to give way. This was the case of Law No. 20830, passed in 2015, which regulated civil unions for same-sex couples. This happened because the younger generation is more open on these issues than their predecessors. My parents’ generation grew up under the dictatorship, so they grew up in fear, and change does not come easy to them.
In this sense, today’s obstacles are legal and political rather than cultural. Chile’s majority is nominally Catholic, that is, Catholic by tradition rather than out of actual conviction or regular religious practice. The majority of the population takes stances that are more open and tolerant than those of the Church, but the political class is more conservative than public opinion. The Catholic Church continues to wield power and its views are taken into account when decisions are made. That is why, for us, the Catholic Church remains a wall in our way.
• Civic space in Chile is rated as “narrowed” in the CIVICUS Monitor.
• Get in touch with OCAC through their website, visit their Facebook page, or follow @ocacchile on Twitter. You can also sign to support the campaign against street harassment at www.respetocallejero.cl