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By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA, April 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Chile will soon start punishing rampant street sexual harassment against women and girls with fines and prison terms, but getting victims to speak up will be a significant challenge, experts said on Monday.

A law passed this month and expected to come into force within weeks aims to curb street harassment ranging from lewd comments, groping, and stalking to men masturbating in public.

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Three out of four women experienced sexual harassment on the street in the previous year, according to a 2015 survey by the Observatory Against Harassment in Chile (OCAC), a non-profit women's rights group.

"We saw a necessity because sexual violence was going on in a systematic way in public spaces," said Maria Jose Guerrero, head of OCAC, which campaigned for the legislation.

Under the new law, those convicted face possible fines and up to five years in prison.

Chile joins Peru as the second country in Latin America where street sexual harassment has a legal definition making it a specific crime, according to Guerrero.

Last year, Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires, also passed a law making street sexual harassment a punishable crime.

Chile's new law could encourage other governments to recognize pervasive street sexual harassment as a social problem to be addressed by legal measures and education, Guerrero said.

But in Chile's "macho" culture, which tends to blame women and condone sexual violence, victims often keep silent, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Women are questioned, they are asked why they dressed in such a way, they are even told that it didn't happen," Guerrero said.

Read More: Here's Why Tens of Thousands of Chilean Women Took to the Streets This Week

Last year, as the #MeToo movement of women speaking out against sexual abuse grew globally, tens of thousands of women protested in Chilean streets against harassment in universities and against gender-based violence.

Around the world, most women have experienced some form of street sexual harassment at least once, according to Holly Kearl, founder of the US-based non-profit Stop Street Harassment (SSH).

"What happens in public spaces is a manifestation of gender inequality and the broader issues of gender violence," she said.

"We are not just talking about whistling or 'hey baby' comments," she said. "We are talking about men who are grabbing women and who are following them, flashing, and assaulting them."

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota. Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)


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Chile Passes Law to Curb Street Harassment and Sexual Violence