The first use of the anti-sexism law that came into effect in Belgium in 2014 has been used to hand down a fine of €3,000 to a man who verbally harassed a female police officer. The incident occurred 18 months ago in Zaventem.

Together with a male colleague, the officer detained a man who was crossing the street against a red light in traffic, creating a dangerous situation. The man began to curse at the officers and eventually focused his attention on the woman, who he called a “dirty whore”. He also said she should get a job more suited to a woman.

The man was found guilty of contempt and sexual harassment by a court in Halle-Vilvoorde. If he does not pay the €3,000 fine, he risks a month in jail. The judgement was handed down last November but has only just come to light.

According to the federal Institute for the Equality of Women and Men, it is the first time that Belgium’s anti-sexism law, passed in 2014, has been used to hand down a guilty verdict. “Many people called this law – which is unique in the world – an exaggeration and thought that it would never be enforceable,” Liesbet Stevens of the institute told De Morgen. “This is proof that that is not the case.”

The law was in fact passed two years after a documentary called Femme de la rue by then film student Sofie Peeters showed with a hidden camera how pervasive sexual harassment is on the streets of Brussels. The film showed Peeters herself being regularly verbally harassed as she simply walked down the street.

Law includes social media

The law makes it a criminal offence to insult a person based on gender or to make intimidating sexual remarks, including on social media. “It is a difficult thing to prove,” admitted Stevens. “A police officer can immediately file a complaint. When an average citizen is victimised in a similar way, the situation is more difficult.”

In the law’s first year, there were 25 complaints in Belgium, according to De Morgen, that did not lead to judgements. That does not suggest that the law is useless, explained Stevens, because complaints can lead to contact made with the suspect, even if no judgement is handed down.

“The existence of the law needs to be communicated, both to the public and within the judicial system,” she said. “An actual case in court is a last resort.”

Written by Flanders Today