2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity
A dynamic, independent and talkative young woman tells her parents there’s nothing to fear from undertaking fieldwork in her new job in the development sector. But a male colleague misconstrues her friendliness as an invitation and barges into her room late at night. Another woman is touched inappropriately by a boss who repeatedly invites her for “informal meetings” outside work, which she refuses every time. In the first case, a formal complaint of sexual harassment is filed, but little significant action is taken. In the second, the woman chooses to keep it to herself. Both are true stories. When we hear accounts such as these, women inevitably reflect: have we faced similar situations? And did we choose to be silent or speak out?
One in three women will experience gender-based violence in their lives, an astonishing and troubling figure. During this year’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, running from 25 November to 10 December, the global advocacy theme is Orange the World: #HearMeToo, involving local, national, regional and global women’s movements, survivor advocates and women human rights defenders, with the aim of creating dialogue between activists, policy-makers and the public. Key to this work is the fight against sexual harassment, and for safer workspaces for everyone.
As media coverage of the #MeToo movement shows, sexual harassment is a global issue. In the US, high-profile cases have involved jurist Brett Kavanaugh and Hollywood figures Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman. In India, the spotlight has turned on Bollywood and politics, including filmmakers Sajid Khan and Vikas Bahl, and government minister MJ Akbar. In Nepal, complaints were levelled against Province 3 minister Keshav Sthapit.
In many cases, these powerful men turn on their accusers. Kavanaugh was appointed to the US Supreme Court and the woman who accused him of sexual assault was maligned; Akbar filed a defamation case against the woman who identified him as a harasser; Bahl claimed charges against him were “false, erroneous, malicious”; and when Sthapit was sacked — over unrelated matters — he described his experience as “a rape of men’s rights”. #MeToo critics argue that “angry women” are simply taking their revenge against those they hold grudges against.
Absent voices: why workplace abuse stays hidden
But what about harassment that does not make the headlines, and the women who do not come forward?
It is clear that, around the world, the onus of proof still falls on the victim, and perpetrators often go unscathed. Systems to report and investigate sexual harassment are becoming more common in large firms and institutions, but for all kinds of women – such as domestic workers in private households, migrants working as carers in Gulf countries, and those in informal, precarious work – no such structures exist. Women can pay a price in reputation, and even their liberty, for speaking out: an Indonesian teacher, Baiq Nuril Maknu, documented unwanted sexual advances by recording a phone conversation with the head of her school – and was jailed for indecency. According to Amnesty Indonesia’s executive director, Usman Hamid, she was “criminalised simply for taking steps to redress the abuse she experienced”.
This is why women choose to remain silent. Patriarchal structures protect habitual offenders who target the vulnerable and move from one workplace to another with impunity, while their victims are paralysed by fear or feel forced to leave their jobs.
Providing opportunities for women to speak out
While no one should feel compelled to report workplace harassment, it is important to afford everyone the opportunity to do so. We must acknowledge that workplaces create unequal conditions for women, and can be even worse for those with a different sexual orientation or gender identity, or who are gender non-conforming. Moreover, sexual harassment can and does happen to men, too.
It is important to note that the ongoing under-reporting of cases is due in part to the lack of clarity in understanding what constitutes sexual harassment. According to the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, sexual harassment occurs when an individual engages in unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature, and can include verbal, non-verbal or physical misconduct. The acts may involve the abuse of power, position or by the imposition of any type of coercion, undue influence and enticement.
Institutions need to set up sexual harassment committees capable of handling, investigating and taking appropriate action when complaints are brought forward. Employers should take steps to run training programmes to sensitise employees to the nature of sexual harassment. States and employers have the primary responsibility to ensure an equal workspace. Employees need to feel strong and empowered enough to pursue their right to work under just and fair conditions.
Positive steps: a UN resolution on gender-based violence
There is positive progress being made in establishing sexual harassment as a key workplace, as well as human rights, issue. The United Nations General Assembly Third Committee in its seventy-third session on 19 November this year, adopted a resolution on the issue. It urged states to condemn violence against women and girls, and address the structural and underlying causes of sexual harassment, notably by modifying social and cultural patterns. The resolution provides a normative framework for countries to address discrimination against girls and women at greater risks.
António Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has said, “Not until the half of our population represented by women and girls can live free from fear, violence and everyday insecurity, can we truly say we live in a fair and equal world.” The battle against this widespread form of employment inequality goes on, in the hope that in future there will be a safe, dignified and comfortable workplace for all.