FILE - Demonstrators attend a march demanding an end to sexism and gender violence in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 22, 2018.
FILE - Demonstrators attend a march demanding an end to sexism and gender violence in Santiago, Chile, Nov. 22, 2018.

BOGOTA - 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 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.

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 nonprofit 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.

FILE - Members of feminist organizations hold a pl
FILE - Members of feminist organizations hold a placard, which reads "Harassment is violence" during a rally against sexual harassment and gender violence in Santiago, Chile, Oct. 24, 2017.

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.

'Macho' culture

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

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

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.

Global problem

Around the world, most women have experienced some form of street sexual harassment at least once, according to Holly Kearl, founder of the U.S.-based nonprofit, 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."