MANILA — Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte has faced frequent accusations of sexism for his expletive-laden speeches featuring crass jokes about rape and other offensive remarks toward women.
He once kissed a married woman in front of thousands of supporters, saying she could tell her husband it was a joke. Last year he admitted to sexually assaulting a sleeping maid when he was a teenager.
Now, the president has left many here scratching their heads after he signed a new law outlawing wolf-whistling, catcalling and the telling of sexual jokes in public, among other forms of harassment. Penalties include fines and imprisonment.
The law extends to public leering, intrusive gazing, stalking and unwanted exposure, as well as commentary online. It requires bars, restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses to install signs that include a hotline number for reporting sexual harassment.
Duterte’s spokesman told reporters Tuesday that the president recognized the need for the anti-harassment measures and that he “will be the first one to obey” the new law, known as the Safe Spaces Act. He added that Duterte sometimes told lewd jokes because he wanted to make people laugh.
The irony of Duterte’s government approving such legislation wasn’t lost on women’s advocates, who have been among the firebrand leader’s most prominent critics.
Duterte “represents the single most brazen violator of the law’s intent with his staple macho-fascist remarks,” the Gabriela Women’s Party, a leftist political group, said in a statement. Implementing the law under Duterte’s administration would “certainly be a challenge,” the group added.
“Duterte is the misogynist in chief,” said Inday Espina-Varona, a journalist and founder of the #BabaeAko, or I Am Woman, campaign.
“While this is a law that is long overdue, his signing it only rams home the truth: He believes himself to be above the law.”
Duterte signed the act in April but officials did not release a copy of it until Monday.
The measures were put forward by a member of the opposition, Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who said on her Facebook account that Filipinos should report sexual harassment.
“The law is only as good as how it is implemented. We need to test the law and make sure it serves its purpose,” she wrote. Hontiveros was not available to comment further Tuesday.
The Philippines ranked eighth among nations for gender equality last year, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. But women’s advocates say the country still lags in key areas: Abortion is illegal, and long-running efforts to legalize divorce have met resistance from some lawmakers and the Catholic Church.
Sexual violence and harassment are also common. A 2016 Social Weather Stations survey in the Manila region found that 3 in 5 women experienced harassment in public spaces. One in 4 women experienced spousal violence, government-backed research found a year later.
Duterte — best known for a drug war that has left thousands of Filipinos dead — has made many controversial statements about women since taking office in 2016. He has gawked at the legs of Vice President Leni Robredo, told soldiers to shoot female guerrilla fighters in the vagina and joked about wanting to rape an Australian missionary who was killed in 1989.
“As long as there are many beautiful women, there will be more rape cases,” he said in a speech in his home city of Davao last year.
When the Swedish ambassador to Manila criticized Duterte’s language last week, the president’s spokesman countered that foreign audiences “may not have the same acceptance” of Duterte’s humor as Filipinos.
“The good Sweden envoy should judge the president not by his words but by his deeds,” spokesman Salvador Panelo said. Duterte has appointed women to government posts and passed pro-women laws, he added.
The new Safe Spaces Act corrects a prior legal restriction that recognized harassment only when committed by superiors toward subordinates.
Still, Duterte need not be personally concerned about the reach of the new law — at least, not for the moment. As president, he has immunity from prosecution for the duration of his six-year term.