The overall legal framework for addressing sexual harassment at workplace is not equipped to effectively deal with the issue as many women still face the abuse, said women’s rights activists.
There is a serious lack of proper enforcement of the existing law, they said at the launching of ActionAid Bangladesh’s three-year campaign “Women Friendly Safe Workplace”.
A 2009 High Court directive on forming committees in every educational institution and workplace, to deal with complaints of sexual harassment, has by and large gone unheard, they added.
“On one hand, laws hardly define sexual harassment at workplace, and on the other there is a lack of enforcement of the laws,” ActionAid Bangladesh Country Director Farah Kabir said at the programme.
“Existing laws do not comprehensively address or define sexual harassment at the workplace,” Dhaka University law faculty member Taslima Yasmin said while presenting the keynote paper.
She also called for enactment of law for protection from and prevention of sexual harassment at work.
The Labour Law 2006 insufficiently deals with addressing gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, at the workplace, she said, adding, “The way sexual offence is defined in criminal law is not sufficient to address gender-based violence.”
An ActionAid research found that the High Court guideline on sexual harassment was not effectively implemented in most places.
A study done by ActionAid in May 2018 found that 87 percent of university students and 64.5 percent professionals were not familiar with the HC directives.
Kashfia Feroz, manager of Women Rights and Gender Equity at ActionAid Bangladesh, said that the number of women joining the workforce is gradually growing. Between1996-2017, the national rate of female labour force participation increased from 15.8 to 36.3 percent. But they still face sexual harassment at work as well as during their commute to and from work.
Quoting a December 2018 study, she said that 85 percent of garment workers face verbal abuse, 71 percent face mental torture, 21 percent face physical torture and 13 percent face sexual abuse.
“Gender-based violence at the workplace diminishes women’s dignity, compromises their physical and mental wellbeing, and brings down productivity and profitability,” she added.
Labour leader and Executive Director of Awaj Foundation Nazma Akhter said it was the employers’ responsibility to ensure a safe and secured workplace for workers, especially women. “The government should enact laws and ensure proper implementation,” she added.
BGMEA Director A Momen said, “We also want the elimination of harassment at the workplace.”
Additional Secretary of the labour and employment ministry Mollah Jalal Uddin said that gender-based violence at workplace was not acceptable. “The government has taken a zero-tolerance policy against gender-based violence.”
“If needed, we will modify the existing laws and enact new ones to curb harassment,” he added.
Nijera Kori Coordinator Khushi Kabir said, “We need laws and policies, but more importantly we need a change in the attitude towards women.”
Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha Executive Director Rokeya Kabir urged trade union leaders to take measures against sexual harassment at the workplace.
Deputy High Commissioner of Australia, Penny Morton, said that the underlining cause of gender-based violence was gender inequality. “Legislation, policy, regulation and implementation are keys to address gender-based violence,” she added.
Chief Technical Advisor of ILO’s Bangladesh Skills for Employment and Productivity project Kishore Kumar Singh and Chief Executive Officer of Business Initiative Leading Bangladesh Ferdaus Ara Begum, among others, spoke at the programme.