More than nine in ten girls have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces in Belgium, according to a recent study, but as 94% of incidents aren't reported to the police, the problem has for a long time seemed non-existent to those tasked with solving it.
Based on the findings of the Plan International study, the organisation has stressed that more targeted action is needed, together with the cooperation of cities, youth activists, and most importantly the police - the main contact point for these incidents.
"People in the police and justice sectors must be trained to receive and listen to all victims; raising awareness and training are key to an effective anti-sexism policy," Sarah Schlitz, Secretary of State for Gender equality, Equal opportunity and Diversity, told The Brussels Times.
The police are aware that the negative perception of how reports will be dealt with is resulting in incidents not being reported at all, Olivier Slosse, spokesperson for the Bruxelles-Capital/Ixelles area, told The Brussels Times.
"This is one of the reasons why we are working with an external partner to train police officers on the broader context of sexism, how this translates into daily life, and how officers should deal with these incidents," Slosse said.
He explained that this training should ensure that all police officers can correctly file reports on these incidents but added that the training also touches on ensuring that officers know how to treat victims when they make a complaint.
"Specifically focussing on the treatment of victims will make it easier for them to report such incidents," Schlitz added.
In August, the Brussels North police zone launched a similar project to raise awareness by educating both police officers and the public about street harassment in the city, which ranges from unwanted whistling and sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, to following, flashing, and sexual assault.
Even if a crime is reported to the police, it can be difficult to catch the perpetrator and for them to be brought to justice, which is another legal barrier that stops victims from reporting harassment, according to Els Enhus, professor in Criminology at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
"These incidents often happen in a crowd, meaning the perpetrator can disappear quickly. Victims have often already considered that it’s almost impossible to find the perpetrator and that it can be difficult to prove the crime before reporting it," she said.
Slosse agreed that this results in women and girls not knowing whether reporting such incidents will result in the perpetrator actually being reprimanded, further creating a barrier to report them. As a result, he said, sexual harassment "does not appear on the radar."
"Then men can say that the problem does not exist because their reality is different from what women experience in a public space," he added.
Recently, Bruxelles-Capital/Ixelles launched an initiative to place plainclothes patrols on the streets to help them gather more tangible evidence and to catch perpetrators of sexual harassment red-handed.
But this tactic doesn't address the core problem, Enhus says. "It’s interesting that they are aware of the problem, and that they are trying to look for solutions, but I don’t think that this will be a real solution," she said.
Slosse also recognised that more is needed to tackle this issue, but stressed that a key point of this project is to show that the problem is being taken seriously and to approach women and girls in public spaces to ensure they know it is a crime that should be reported.
"When approaching them on the streets, we also ask them for information about their experiences with sexual harassment and intimidation," Slosse added.
He also stressed that despite the efforts the police is making, it is clear that a lot of work still has to be done, adding that "the police alone cannot solve these issues, as it is a joint responsibility of society."
Law in theory vs. in practice
If an incident is reported and a perpetrator can be caught, Slosse explained that the police prefers to focus on education rather than direct punishment.
"The person will receive training on sexual harassment in the form of three informative sessions, and the public prosecutor will be told whether the offender has attended these sessions," Slosse explained. Based on this information, the prosecutor can then decide to summon the suspect to court.
If the incident is considered an act of criminal sexism, the perpetrator risks a prison sentence of one month up to one year and/or a fine of €50 to €1,000.
In Belgium, a law was introduced on 22 May 2014 to further "strengthen the fight against discrimination and sexism in public spaces" by clearly stating what constitutes a crime and how it should be punished.
"Thanks to this law, any act or behaviour that seriously and publicly denigrates a person because of their gender can result in a court case, a prison sentence or a fine," Schlitz explained.
Yet she stressed that the current law does not work as well in practice in Belgium, as its implementation puts the burden of providing evidence on the victim and leaves it up to the judge to assess the seriousness of the acts.
This is why, according to Enhus, the current solution to this problem lies in education, not only of police officers or perpetrators but, crucially, of young children and teaching them that sexual harassment is wrong.
"It has a lot to do with the mentality of men and the place that we as women have in that society," she said.
When it comes to the legal aspect of how women are treated in society, Schlitz stressed that the current law is insufficient and that she "would like to launch an evaluation process with women's organisations to improve it and make it more responsive to concrete needs on the ground."
"We are currently working on the National Action Plan to combat gender-based violence, which should help guarantee women's rights in all areas of life by finally respecting the Belgian commitments made at the international level," she added.
Jilke Tielemans contributed to this article.