Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte will “be the first one to obey” a new law banning sexual harassment, his spokesman said, after critics highlighted the outspoken leader’s appalling record on the issue.
The Safe Spaces Act (Republic Act 11313) bans groping, sexual slurs, cat-calling, wolf-whistling, stalking, and making repeated unwanted sexual remarks or advances in all public spaces.
Duterte has been condemned in the past for his sexist statements, including joking that he’d give soldiers a new order to shoot female rebels in the vagina.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told local media Tuesday that Duterte fully supported the new law, which he signed in April but was only publicized this week.
“Since the President signed that law, it means he recognizes the need for the law. Since he is the chief enforcer of all the laws of the Philippines, he will be the first one to obey the law,” Panelo said.
He said the President’s past statements were merely intended to entertain.
“When he cracks jokes, it was intended to make people laugh – never to offend,” Panelo added.
Under the new law, which was signed in April but only announced this Monday, perpetrators face fines or imprisonment depending on the severity of their actions. The law will also penalize online sexual harassment with imprisonment or a fine ranging from 100,000 to 500,000 pesos ($1,965 to $9,825) or even both.
“It is the policy of the state to value the dignity of every human person and guarantee full respect for human rights,” the new law states.
Duterte’s brash and unfiltered style has earned him a number of colorful nicknames, including “Misogynist in Chief,” and he has often made headlines for his comments about women.
Last year, the 74-year-old kissed a married Filipina woman onstage during a visit to South Korea in a move that sparked criticism, including accusations of abuse of power.
In 2016, he joked about the 1989 gang rape of an Australian missionary in his hometown Davao City, saying “I was angry she was raped, yes that was one thing. But she was so beautiful, I think the mayor should have been first,” Duterte said, according to a CNN Philippines translation of the comments. His office later apologized.
Opposition Senator Rita Hontiveros, one of the principal authors of the bill, applauded the new law as a “landmark victory,” but also warned that “the law is only as good as how it is implemented.”
Others questioned whether the law would be applied equally to everyone – including the President.
“The most misogynistic President the Philippines has ever had doing the right thing. I sure hope he doesn’t think he’s exempt from the law he just signed,” Human Rights Watch Researcher Carlos Conde tweeted.
“He is the chief propagator of a culture that degrades and objectifies women, and that which exhorts cat-callers, sexual offenders and even uniformed personnel to disrespect women. Under this context, implementing the law will certainly be a challenge,” the Gabriela Women’s Party wrote on Twitter.