Sexual harassment can come in many forms.
It can be a wolf whistle to a woman from a stranger across the street, a catcall to a passerby from a hardhat worker at a construction site, an indecent gesture from a man on the bus or a groping by another passenger on the metro.
It can also come in the form of the use of lascivious language, an act of exhibitionism or public masturbation, the emailing of pornographic pictures or videos and cyber violence.
And every one of these acts is considered a crime or misdemeanor in Mexico City.
But while 87 percent of the capital’s adult women say that they have been subjected to sexual harassment in the city’s public places and transportation systems, and a full 50 percent say they feel afraid during their daily commutes on mass transit, less than 4 percent ever bother to report these abuses.
For the last two months, the Mexico City government and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) have been working together to try to instill as greater awareness of the rights of women.
The program is part of a larger UN Women platform in more than 25 major cities around the globe called Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces.
The novel two-phase program in Mexico involves an anatomically correct subway seat with male genitalia labeled “for men only” aimed at showing men how women feel when singled out for their gender, and a fanny cam that shoots close-up images of men’s backsides and project them throughout the metro station where they are standing.
The reaction from the men is usually discomfort, which is exactly what the program is trying to achieve.
“In order to get men to take sexual harassment seriously, we have to jar them and make them take note,” explained UN Women director Ana Güezmes during a press conference to announce the program.
“This campaign may be a little unorthodox, but it grabs men’s attention, and then we can start trying to educate and sensitize them.”
Mexico City Secretary of State Patricia Mercado Castro, who is overseeing the program from the municipal government end, added that her office is also working with police and other authorities to ensure that victims who do report sexual harassment abuses are treated with respect and dignity and that perpetrators are processed and charged.
In addition, the city is placing billboards and ads (produced pro bono by the international J. Walter Thompson agency) in public places to reiterate the message that sexual harassment is not to be tolerated.
“It is a bit of an uphill battle because this is a problem that requires all levels of society to cooperate in order to make a cultural sea change,” Mercado Castro said.
“But we are making headway, especially among millennials and younger people.”
In order to get more men on board with the program, the Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces have enlisted help from a group of high-profile spokesmen to convey the message across that sexual harassment is neither acceptable nor legal.
Among the Safe Cities ambassadors are film star Alfonso Herrera, lucha libre wrestler El Hijo del Santo and Pumas soccer team technical director Francisco Palencia.
“These are men who have large public followings and who are seen as manly,” said Güezmes.
“Hopefully, they can set an example for other men and show that you don’t have to be aggressive with women in order to appear macho.”
“Most women understand how awful sexual harassment can be because most women have experienced it,” said Mercado Castro.
“Now we have to get men to recognize this as an offense against women, and that is a major part of what this program is trying to do.”
A large part of the program is directed to men, and includes a social media hashtag #NoEsDeHombres, which roughly translates to “Real Men Don’t Do This.”
But there is always going to be a fine line when it comes to flirtation and sexual aggression, as exhibited in the case of one elderly woman who attended the press conference and said that, at her age, she considers a catcall from a stranger as a complement.
Güezmes graciously pointed out that there is a big difference between a catcall shouted from across the street and a polite complement offered respectfully face-to-face.
But the elderly woman did not seem to be convinced.
Güezmes was not deterred.
“Yes, as men become more sensitized to what constitutes sexual harassment, there are going to be times when they won’t be sure if something is appropriate or not,” she said.
“My advice to them is: When in doubt, keep your mouth shut.”
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com