Postcard from... Brussels

Stamping out the casual sexism experienced by women all over the world is an issue perplexing many policy makers. The gender-based abuse ranges from obscene propositions in the street to sexist rants on Twitter. But global initiatives like the Everyday Sexism Project and iHollaback.org are fighting to raise awareness of the harassment so many women – and some men – experience.

But what is the best way of tackling it? For the Belgian government, the answer lies in the law books. Last week the Senate passed a ground-breaking anti-sexism law, making Belgium the first country in the world to define and ban sexist speech in public places.

It is not only women the legislation intends to protect: house-husbands who are mocked for their choices could also make use of the law, which punishes offenders with up to a year in prison and a fine. The equalities minister, Joëlle Milquet (pictured), says that she hopes the law will “finally gives clear support to the victims – often women – in confirming their freedom to come and go in public spaces.”

But not everyone is convinced this is the best approach. Lawyers have argued that the definition of sexism is too vague and could lead to attacks on free speech. Groups raising awareness of street harassment are also worried that the problem is so prevalent it will be impossible to enforce the law, and the state should be focusing on public awareness campaigns.

“Street harassment is so common because sexism is in the water that we all drink,” says Emily May, the US-based co-founder of iHollaback. “It’s part of our global culture: on TV, on the internet, on billboards, and spilling out of the mouths of even our closest friends. If we want to look at effective solutions, we need to tackle the culture of sexism that causes street harassment first and foremost.”

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