<%-- Page Title--%> Human Rights <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 118 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 15, 2003

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Women at Work

Yet to be Freed

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Violence is a frightening reality for everyone in our society today, and probably more so for women. Blatant crimes against women such as acid-throwing and rape, which are more visible, outrage people. Others are hardly talked about -- or even recognised or understood correctly -- even by women themselves.

Sexual harassment is one such reality of every woman's life in every field, from the media to law, politics, medicine and teaching. Sexual harassment, according to Dr. Shahnaz Huda, Associate Professor of Law, University of Dhaka, may be defined as “unwanted, non-consensual, unreciprocated and offensive behaviour with sexual connotations in office or other workplace, street, education institution and so forth, where such sexuality is not desirable nor acceptable.”

Sexual harassment has always existed, says Huda, as a misuse of power by men. In a paper presented at a dialogue on “Sexual Harassment and Professional Women: Perspectives, Experiences and Responses”, Huda went on to define the act as commonly referring to “sexual exploitation, humiliation, or causing embarrassment to women in a manner which is an expression of male superiority or a perceived dominance by men who believe that they have an inherent right to victimise women”.

Forum on Women in Security and International Affairs (FOWSIA) organised a dialogue on sexual harassment and professional women.

The dialogue, organised by the Forum on Women in Security and International Affairs (FOWSIA) on August 2, focused on sexual harassment against professional women, as opposed to all women in general. Much research has been done on harassment against, for example, garment workers in Bangladesh. Supported by the Bangladesh Freedom Foundation, the dialogue sought to bring to the fore issues regarding sexual harassment of women in the workplace.

For this purpose, the definitions of “working women” and “professional women” were separated -- the first referring to women who are “employed in lower paid jobs or engaged or employed in primarily manual and mechanical labour”
while the second referred to women “engaged in a profession or employment which is not manual labour and which requires some degree of higher learning or expertise”. Huda believes that though garment workers and domestic servants face greater harassment where they work, live, etc., even women in less vulnerable and more powerful positions, regardless of where they work, may be sexually harassed.

Sexual harassment may be quid pro quo, writes Huda in her paper, which refers to “sexual advances or requests for sexual favours when presented as a condition of work” (“Go out with me or you'll be fired/not be promoted”) or it may take the form of the creation of a “hostile, intimidating or offensive workplace” such as male colleagues viewing pornographic material at the office. Harassment may be “physical, verbal, gestural, written, graphical or emotional and the spreading of sexual rumours", for example, about a “bad” female colleague all entail forms of sexual harassment.

All men are not harassers, of course, but men also need not be in superior positions to harass their female colleagues. Although they are the usual perpetrators, co-workers, colleagues, outsiders and even subordinates may be harassers. Men seem to do it simply because they are men, wrongly thinking that their sexual impulses are unavoidable and that they actually please women, oblivious of how offensive and even terrifying it may be for women who are subjected to it.

So why do women remain silent about the harassment they face? Though not well documented, says Huda, reasons include fear of reprisal as well as that of losing one's job and thus one's livelihood. Not only will it make those at work more hostile towards the accuser, but if a woman publicly claims to being harassed, her family may also stop her from working, not to mention the social condemnation which follows along with the initial hostility for crossing social barriers of private and public life when getting a job in the first place. Some women remain submissive to the male-dominated society in which they live. Others do not know from whom to seek advice or assistance to stop the harassment. Professional women also have somewhat of a position to uphold and respectability to maintain for which they may not report harassment.

The keynote paper presented at the dialogue also sought to clarify some common misconceptions regarding sexual harassment. One, it is not rare or harmless as is thought by many. Women, no matter what their “reputation” may be like, do not “ask for it” and being dressed “provocatively” or “unconventionally” or venturing into unsuitable areas unaccompanied does not justify harassment against them. Neither are these the only circumstances under which they are harassed. It is not only young and attractive women who are harassed. Some women's vulnerability even increases because of their marital status or their belonging to a minority group or religion such as for separated, divorced or widowed women who are not only more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment but also to the strongest forms of harassment.

There are ways to prevent sexual harassment, of course, and the first thing to do is to report it. Section 10 of the Women and Children Repression Prevention (Amendment) Act, 2003 deals with sexual oppression and harassment by which perpetrators of the crime are legally punishable. Different organisations have their own gender policies and some, such as CARE Bangladesh, have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment.
Policy formation is probably the most important and effective step towards preventing sexual harassment at the workplace, agreed speakers at the dialogue. A clear definition of sexual harassment and its prohibition in the workplace must be known to all, not only in the form of policies but also through intra-organisational training programmes, leaflets, etc., disseminating the information as well as publicising cases taken up where harassment has been proved and the perpetrators punished.

Silence about such crimes eats away at the system like a disease. Only by understanding what sexual harassment actually is and gathering the courage and support to speak out against it can we take effective measures in preventing it.



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