Dominican Republic’s New Campaign To Fight Female Street Harassment

Last week, I was reading Diario Libre from my computer on a sunny Sunday morning, when I let out a scream. Just 24 hours after I wrote and published this post on solo female travel — in which I mentioned the pervasiveness of catcalling in the Caribbean, as in other parts of the world — the city of Santo Domingo was announcing the launch of an educational campaign to fight “piropo” or female street harassment.

A part state, part UN Women-led campaign!

It was the kind of platform I’d wished for and suggested in my post on ways for Caribbean governments and even the private sector to tackle safety issues for all women. I’ll admit that deep down, I thought it would be years before a Caribbean country targeted catcalling as a form of serious harassment.

I. #CiudadSinAcoso: International Anti-Street Harrasment Week, April 7-14

While digging up information on Santo Domingo’s new campaign mentioned in Diario Libre — called #CiudadSinAcoso or “City without harassment” — I learned that April 7 to 14 of every year is actually International Anti-Street Harassment Week. I must have been living under a rock (while on a rock) because this was the first I’d heard of it.

The non-profit Meet Us on The Street launched this movement eight years ago. In 2018, 38 countries from around the world participated in International Anti-Street Harassment Week, including Colombia and Trinidad.

For this year’s edition, Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, joined in with its own campaign. The office of the Mayor of Santo Domingo, in collaboration with UN Women, among other international and local institutions, kicked off the #CiudadSinAcoso weeklong activities on April 7, 2019, in the Colonial City.

This historic and popular recreational area is one of the busiest, fastest-growing and most pedestrian-trafficked areas in the capital, attracting both locals and tourists.

Since I wasn’t aware of the launch event that took place last Sunday and I had to fly out mid-week, I obtained authorization to share images from that day.

A double-sided white-paper board was placed in bustling Parque Colon, inviting passersby to write their opinions about and a solution for fighting female street harassment. All images by Lorena Espinoza Pena.

The general public was invited to come out, discuss and write down their solutions to end the street side harassment of Dominican women.

Two large poster boards asked: What do you think about street harassment? What do you propose to fight street harassment?

The launch activities also shed light on the types of offensive, unwelcome comments men throw around in the streets of Santo Domingo.

Messages were plastered on park benches — where men often sit on hot afternoons with their friends — on the ground, and on boards that the women held up themselves.

There were young women holding signs with responses to men’s catcalls.

The above message on the left says, “I don’t want your catcalls, I want your respect.” On the right: “I want to walk in peace in these streets.”

I’m sad I didn’t know about the event, but I’m thrilled to see this specific catcalling issue being addressed, taken out from under the rug and flung out into the open in a Caribbean and Hispanic country. No more excuses that “it’s the culture!”

All images courtesy of Lorena Espinoza Peña.

Like all women around the world, I’ve been the victim of street side harassment during my travels around the world, as well as in the many places I’ve called home, like Washington, DC.

In the Dominican Republic, which I’ve explored from north to south and east to west for my Moon Dominican Republic guidebooks, it’s been fairly non-aggressive for the most part.

Except, for that one time; isn’t there always one? I was crossing a parking lot and about to enter a supermarket in downtown Puerto Plata, at lunchtime. A man, well dressed I might add, had stepped out of his car while I was walking past him. He shouted my way:

“Morena, vamos pa’ la

A cabaña is basically a sex motel, where rooms are rented by the hour.

I felt so much rage and shock. This was five years ago and my Dominican slang wasn’t yet as sharp as it is now (he wouldn’t want to try me today). I normally ignored comments, but this one was so far out of line. Feeling helpless, I turned around and hurled the F word at him.

I couldn’t believe I actually did that; it was completely out of character, not to mention potentially risky. I’ve probably said this to someone at most twice in my life. I turned back around swiftly and went shopping, still reeling from the insult.

So yes, I’m cheering on this women-led Dominican campaign because I know the pedestrian women here are dealing with the worst of catcalls every single day.

Men at the launch event, supporting the campaign and the message to stop female streetside harrassment.

In fact, throughout this week, women have been sharing their own experiences on social media under the hashtag #CiudadSinAcoso, as the weeklong awareness campaign continues. Powerful photos and captions have been posted daily, while the public responds to one question a day.

Take a look at them in the image below (in Spanish, of course).

Daily challenges for the public under the #CiudadSinAcoso campaign – with questions on social media.

The responses and the stories that young women, in particular, are sharing online are incredibly eye opening and gut wrenching. No doubt, the men are reading these too and change is rearing its head, slowly but surely.

II. #ReseteateRD: Fighting Gender-Based Violence in the Dominican Republic

The fight against street side harassment has been building up for several years, as it turns out. Aside from marches led by women’s rights groups and the media addressing the issue, #CiudadSinAcoso was actually borne out of a larger umbrella campaign in the Dominican Republic, launched in September 2018.

Named Resetéate RD — which translates into “Reset yourself DR” (or “let’s reset our thinking”) — this larger, countrywide campaign addresses violence against women in the DR, in all its forms. It’s spearheaded by a number of the Dominican Republic’s longest-running women-led institutions around the country, in addition to OXFAM. I’d already left the country for a busy series of work travel that lasted over two months, so again, I missed that announcement.

The campaign is the result of a study by Oxfam which discovered that while the Dominican Republic’s findings on gender violence were similar to neighboring Latin and Caribbean countries, the beliefs that justify aggressive behavior towards women were more deeply rooted in the DR.

#ReseteateRD’s core mission, then, is to destroy cultural stereotypes and deconstruct the strong machismo mentality in the country: the ingrained belief many Dominican men have that they are superior to women, or that women are their property. The campaign also advocates for the creation of safe spaces for women and girls — including in their daily commutes, in the streets.

Since September of last year, the #ReseteateRD campaign has continued and it’s resulted in a countrywide conversation on improving the quality of life for women in Dominican society.

Perhaps the most stand-out aspect of this campaign, is that a group of Millenials who work for the sponsoring institutions actually designed its content and messages. A campaign by young people for young people.

Check out this fantastic #ReseteateRD campaign video below, released in January 2019. The first part interviews young men about catcalling. The second part films them while they watch and listen to young women talking about what it’s like to be street harassed. The result is powerful. Caveat: it’s in Spanish.

Some of the questions these young men were asked:
What do you think about catcalling?
Have you done it before?
Why do you do it?
Has catcalling ever earned you a date?

Do you think women like to be catcalled?

What the women said about catcalling:
I feel disgust, powerlessness, anger.
I’m even scared to go out.
We shouldn’t be told how we look. We have mirrors at home.
They don’t know that by doing it, they’re hurting the girl.
A serious guy wouldn’t catcall me in the streets.

The video concludes by stating “Catcalling is a form of harassment. Enough of excusing macho violence.”

That part where one young man says that you learn it in your environment? So true. Many Dominican boys, especially those from underprivileged or crime-ridden neighborhoods, are encouraged to throw out comments to women without shame from a young age, as a form of proof to the world and their fathers that they are men.

I remembered my better half telling me how he witnessed this growing up in Santo Domingo. If boys didn’t do it — the same way he refused to, because it’s not that boy’s personality and he respects girls — they’d be accused of being gay. This level of ignorance persists not just in the DR, but throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Try breaking a habit you learn at age 12!

III. Santo Domingo: A City Committed To Confronting Alarming Rate of Gender-Based Violence

The Mayor of Santo Domingo and the greater National District, with the support of UN Women, OXFAM and other entities, has shown his commitment to supporting campaigns to fight gender-based inequality, violence, and the harassment of women in the city. He’s also committed that the city and National District will adhere to the “HeforShe” UN Women’s initiative involving men as agents of change.

David Collado, Mayor of Santo Domingo and the National District, is a strong supporter of women’s rights in his city. – Image from the Mayor’s office.

The Dominican Republic doesn’t yet have a legal clause expressly punishing street harassment, but it’s generally understood that it can fall under Article 333 of the Penal Code, which punishes by fine and imprisonment two forms of sexual aggression: physical (such as rape) and non-physical. Street harassment would fall under the latter.

Of course, it remains highly unlikely, not to mention dangerous, for a woman to press charges for catcalling.

But the fact that it’s increasingly recognized as a form of violence and aggression shows a transformation taking place at the institutional and social level. It’s a great start to pushing the conversation further and re-educating young men.

By the way, if you’re curious to know about US laws against catcalling, you’ll be surprised when you read this piece. Meanwhile, in Latin America, Peru has been a pioneer in implementing a specific law against street harassment.

IV. Joining the movement – as visitors and guests

As a travel journalist specializing in the Caribbean, and as a frequent female guest of the Dominican Republic, I’m grateful and in awe of these Dominican women and young girls confronting the patriarchy, as well as the men and the institutions who are supporting and sharing their mission.

Dominican women and many of their male supporters have had enough of the high rates of femicides in the country. It’s a time to reeducate the boys, and the women are saying out loud: we don’t want to dread stepping out of the house; we don’t want to worry about our clothes; we want to feel safe in our city streets just as the men walk about freely, we want to walk the sidewalks without having to cross the street out of fear, and our bodies are not for men to objectify. Sound familiar?

While #CiudadSinAcoso wraps up Sunday April 14 along with International Anti-Harassment Week, the main campaign #ReseteateRD continues.

Please feel free to follow Reseteate RD online on your preferred social media channel, or find the hashtag. This campaign benefits all of us who love, live or explore the Caribbean. Read and post an encouraging comment online, or even emoticons of you don’t speak Spanish.

The campaign could inform and inspire similar efforts from Caribbean governments to create their own initiatives specifically against street harassment.

V. Our safety is collective — at home and abroad

As I mentioned in my post on solo female safety on the road and in the Caribbean, our safety is a collective matter. It’s not just about the foreigner’s wellness abroad — it’s first about the local women who live in the destinations we visit.

When they’re safe, we are safe too. When they’re able to roam without fear at home, we will be as well.

It bears repeating that travel doesn’t exist in a bubble. It’s a bridge connecting us to our counterparts around the world, and a priceless lesson about our place in it.

Above: Images from the #CiudadSinAcoso campaign in Santo Domingo, shared on social media. The images are by Lorena Espinoza Peña and the text by Susi Pola.

The next time you hear of a similar campaign taking place while you’re visiting — why not take a few minutes and join the conversation, share the message and show support?

In Trinidad, for example, women took to the streets at Carnival 2017 to spread the message that they want to celebrate freely and without harassment, using Calypso Rose’s theme song that year, “Leave Me Alone.” If you were there, what an amazing chance to be part of a global movement!

Keep your eyes peeled, think beyond your immediate sphere, swap stories and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a much more meaningful experience, while forging lifelong bonds.

Showing up and making a social impact in the place in which we find ourselves isn’t just about responsible travel or doing good for others to feel good about ourselves, as if it were a voluntourism project.

It’s about doing for all because we are actually more similar than we are different. We are, indeed, all connected irrespective of our backgrounds. That, my friends, is the true “reset” power of travel.

Are you encouraged to see a Caribbean country finally addressing the harassment of women in the street? Do you want to see a similar campaign elsewhere in the region?

Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, or on social media @sunandstilettos.

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