Last month, Star Weekend, The Daily Star conducted an online survey to explore incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace. Within a short time, the responses we received were horrific.
A total of 100 employees of different organisations—working in the government, NGOs, banks and financial institutions, media houses and corporate companies took part in the survey. 75 percent of them faced some sort of sexual harassment at their current or former workplace.
"About a year ago one of my female colleagues (she is divorced and a single mother) went to audit (social compliance audit) with one of our male colleagues. He said to her “The company wants single women like you”."
39 percent of the harassers were bosses or supervisors, while the rest were their colleagues. The nature of harassment included physical, mental, verbal, cyber harassment of a sexual nature. An overwhelming majority of women who responded to the survey reported more than one of these forms of sexual harassment in their workplaces.
The respondents were also asked to provide the name of their organisation, on the condition of anonymity. Fifty of the respondents mentioned their organisations’ names (there were multiple respondents from a few organisations). Those who were unwilling to share the names of their workplace where they were harassed, were asked why. Among other reasons, their replies were that they would face retaliation from their harassers, would get into trouble, and were told by others that they were making a mountain out of a molehill. A few also said that they are still at the same workplace, so they don’t want to risk getting their name out and not get hired by other employers in the future.
"He asked me to stay after class and then started touching me inappropriately."
In a few cases, though the respondents stated they were comfortable naming the organisation, we are, for now, withholding the names, till we can independently verify the allegations.
Women forced to leave their workplace
As many as 49 percent of respondents said that they were physically harassed, including being forcibly kissed, hugged, touched inappropriately, groped, had their shoulders squeezed, buttocks grabbed, and more. Such harassment forced many of the women to leave their jobs.
A former employee of an organisation that works to prevent drug abuse, says that she had to leave her job because she was sexually harassed by the founder of her organisation. She states it happened in 2016 when she was a new employee there. “One day, he forcibly kissed and hugged me. I was so shocked that I couldn’t decide what to do at that time. I stopped going to the pervert’s office. He used to call and text me every day after the incident and continued to do so for the next five to six months. Most of his text messages were badgering me to rejoin the office,” she writes.
“After leaving that job, my predecessor at the position who had trained me for a few months told me over the phone that the man was infamous for his pervert nature,” she claims.
"He touched sensitive parts of my body!"
“Since he was the chief of that organisation, I was not in a situation to fight against it. In fact, I could not do anything because he is a well-known person and everybody knows him by his name and influence. I felt that if I complained, it wouldn’t change anything, but I would be stigmatised my whole life. Though initially, my stance was to forget the incident, two years later, even today, I feel that this is something I can never forget in my entire life,” she explains.
Another respondent wrote that her boss used to touch and squeeze her shoulders. “He proposed continuously that I go to bed with him. I was forced to leave the job,” she writes. This respondent also couldn’t complain to anyone, because she believed that nothing could be done because the perpetrator was in a position of power.
Verbal, mental and cyber sexual harassment an everyday phenomenon
A large number of the respondents wrote that sexist jokes, blocking their path, bullying, continuous phone calls and text messages, asking them to go on outings, looking them up and down, sending undesirable and graphic messages on social media, making lewd comments to their face, using vulgar words with double meanings and much more, are common behaviour from their male colleagues.
In fact, there are many cases where verbal harassment takes a turn into the physical. One of the respondents, who works at a top private university, mentions that at first she heard her harasser telling another male colleague: “You know why private organisations put emphasis on hiring more and more female employees these days? So the male employees feel good and entertained at the office. To decrease their stress!” The men continuously tried to flirt with her, although she always responded negatively. When she became angry, her harasser used to say, “I was just kidding.”
"At first it started as friendly conversation about work or work-related topics, but gradually he started making inappropriate comments. Somedays he would call while drunk, or just assume that I would go away on a ‘work’ trip with him, without even asking or discussing anything. "
“But gradually he started making excuses to touch me inappropriately. Like, ‘Hey, your bangles are beautiful’ and all of a sudden, touching my hands. I shouted at him but he acted innocent, asking ‘What happened?’” she states.
“Last year in August, one day he came and asked in a serious tone, ‘Hey, what’s on there, whitish?’
‘I asked, where, what?’
He immediately rubbed my cheek exactly in front of the ear with his index finger and asked, ‘Why is this part of you so white?’
Weak implementation of the HC’s Guidelines
In 2009 Bangladesh National Women Lawyer Association (BNWLA) filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in High Court requesting to formulate guidelines for the protection of women and girls from sexual harassment in workplace and educational institutions and all other settings. Following the petition, the HC issued some directives in the form of guidelines, which state that employers are required to have a seven-member sexual harassment complaint committee, headed by a female employee (if available) and there should be at least two members from outside the organisation, preferably from organisations working on gender issues and sexual abuse. The complaint committees are supposed to submit annual reports to the government on their compliance with these guidelines.
"He used to search “sexy images” of adult film stars and save them [sic] on my computer."
According to the guidelines, in case of ‘minor’ sexual harassment, if possible, the complaint committee will dispose of the complaint with the consent of the parties involved and report to the concerned authorities of the workplace in the public or private sector. In all other cases, the complaint committee has to conduct an investigation into the matter.
According to our survey, 46 percent of the respondents informed Star Weekend that they don’t have such a committee at their workplaces, while 18 percent are unaware about the existence of these committees.
"I have shared the information, but several other females from my previous workplace wouldn’t because they worried that it might cause fingers to be raised at them, or repercussion from boss, losing work, or not even getting work at new places."
Star Weekend contacted the petitioner Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), and the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs (MoWCA), but none of these organisations could tell us who was responsible for instructing and monitoring the activities of these committees in every workplace.
When asked if institutions are supposed to submit their annual reports to MoWCA, multiple ministry officials could provide no answers. Salma Ali, human rights lawyer who filed the petition on behalf of BNWLA, also could not confirm which is the designated body to whom the reports should be submitted.
This creates confusion about the functionality of the committees that have actually been formed in a few workplaces.
Speakers at a roundtable at The Daily Star last week on ‘Women Friendly Safe Workplace’ by ActionAid Bangladesh, highlighted that the overall legal framework for addressing sexual harassment is not equipped to effectively deal with the issue, for which women still face abuse at work. According to a 2018 study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh, 65 percent of professionals are not familiar with the HC guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace. Star Weekend’s own survey points to a similar result—51 percent of the respondents are unaware of the guidelines.
"A colleague kept asking me out. I refused but he kept following me home. I told my boss. The head of the department told me to shrug it off and handle it myself."
According to Taposhi Rabaya, assistant director of mediation at BLAST, there is little awareness of the need for such committees in the private sector. “But sexual harassment is a criminal offence, and if anything occurred in an office where there is no effective committee, the chief of the organisation must be held to account for not following the HC’s guidelines,” she says.
According to BLAST, the organisations that are forming committees at work are not abiding by the guidelines of HC while selecting the members. “Rather, they are selecting members from within their offices at their will, excluding external members and running the committees giving a name of their choice,” says Mahbuba Akter, deputy director at BLAST.
"He wanted to kiss me and date me. Upon refusal, he fired me in front of my entire team at the next team meeting for being late to work."
Position of the harassers matter
Similar to the two women whose stories we have shared above, 47 percent of our survey respondents didn’t report their incidents of sexual harassment to the authorities. In some cases, respondents mentioned that either the managing director or the chief executive officer was the culprit and so they feel that they will face retaliation for speaking up.
Most of the respondents said that their supervisors and senior colleagues take advantage of their positions, making the women feel helpless in fighting back against the sexual abuse. In many cases, when the victims protested against the misconduct, their employers looked for ways to blame the victims or insult them in front of others about their professionalism (or lack thereof).
A respondent who used to work in a corporate house, said her boss wanted to be intimate with her. She writes, “He wanted to date me and kiss me. When I said no, he fired me in front of my entire team at the next meeting for being late to work.”
"The boss spoke to the harasser; probably screamed at him. We were told that the harasser would be asked to leave but he is still working at the organisation."
Another respondent from an English daily mentions that her harasser used to stare at her chest during meetings. “Other times he tried to get me to his cubicle to stare down my cleavage. When I slowly started avoiding him, he would look for ways to come to my cubicle and do the same. Later on, he became aggressive and would find ways to blame me to my reporting supervisors and others,” she writes. “All the women on the floor I work on are aware of the bad habits of this harasser, but no one has ever said a thing because of his seniority,” she says.
The nepotistic attitudes of the bosses also save the harassers. A good number of respondents even said that the harassers maintain a good relationship with the administration of the organisation, which is why nothing significant happens when they complain.
For example, one of the respondents writes that when she worked at a coaching centre that has multiple branches all over Dhaka, as a young teacher her supervisor would go on staring at her chest when talking to her. It got to a point where she started feeling so uncomfortable that she shared her experience with a female colleague, who said that he did the same thing to her as well and to other female teachers. But, when they complained to the authorities, they were let go within the next few days because, as one respondent was blamed, “they were not performing to the best of their ability.”
“I later learnt that the supervisor was the relative of the owner of the coaching centre,” she writes.
Another respondent from a Bangla newspaper writes that although a colleague would always flirt with a female colleague in public, when she protested one day, the harasser had an outburst and said that if she didn’t watch out, she (the victim) would lose her job. Their supervisor, though present, said nothing to the harasser, reports the respondent.
What happens when someone reports sexual harassment
According to our survey, 40 percent of the employees reported their harassment to their respective organisations but only in four percent of the cases, the harassers were sacked. In almost every other case, the situation didn’t change, except in a few cases where the harassers were transferred to another section or branch of the company, were yelled at, warned, or interrogated about their misconduct. As shown earlier, in some cases the victims were actually fired from the organisations, blamed for something or insulted in front of everyone by implying that they were not performing well at their job.
"The authorities said it was not harassment as the accused person did not use any slang."
In one part of the survey, respondents were asked to rate their committee’s effectiveness in dealing with their complaints. Only seven percent of employees (four respondents) rated their committees as ‘very satisfactory’, while 43 percent rated as ‘very dissatisfactory’ and 15 percent rated as ‘dissatisfactory’.
In fact, respondents also say that in some cases the authorities of their organisations fail to even identify what constitutes an incident of sexual harassment; in other cases, they simply suggest that the victims shrug it off and handle it by themselves. For example, in a government-owned public limited company, when a female employee reported her incident to the administration that the harasser would block her path while walking, ask personal questions and make inappropriate and suggestive comments regularly, the administrative body said that it was not harassment because ‘the accused did not use any slang’.
"He would say ‘I love you’ and call me whenever he wanted, despite being married."
Star Weekend contacted the organisation and talked to a number of high officials of the administration. They took nearly a week to find out whether they have a committee to address sexual harassment at their office. A member of the committee then informed us that it was formed a year ago, with five in-house employees. She insisted that they encourage employees to make complains but they hadn’t received a complaint from any employee. However, the fact that the administrative officials themselves didn’t know about the existence of the committee raises serious questions about the committees’ functionality.
According to advocate Towhida Khandoker, director at BNWLA, if anyone feels that the committees are not working properly, they can inform the petitioner, i.e. BNWLA. “We know that implementation [of the HC guidelines] is very weak in such cases.”
"The authorities asked me to be more patient, when I filed a complaint against the harasser."
A former and a current employee of an organisation that works on policy research based in Dhaka reports that they were physically, verbally and mentally harassed by their boss. One of them writes that her boss used to touch girls inappropriately, make offensive comments about menstruation and was involved in general forms of harassment like emotional abuse and blackmailing or manipulating the employees. But they didn’t file any complaint about it since they had no such committee. However, when contacted, the organisation states that they are a small organisation having only 15 employees. The organisation has a committee of three members, headed by a man (according to the HC guidelines, such committees must be headed by a female person, if available).
"Don’t want to risk getting my name out and not get hired in the future."
What is surprising is that even in an organisation of only 15 members, employees are unaware of the existence of their sexual harassment complaint committee. The organisation, however, admits that they don’t conduct any seminar or meeting to teach employees on how to report an incident of workplace sexual harassment, also mentioned in the HC guidelines. They provide printed copies of their code of conduct to new employees and it is renewed every year.
This is not only the case at this organisation—64 percent of our respondents said they never attended such awareness building programmes and 26 percent of them are unaware of such programmes.
"I will face retaliation if I name my organisation because now his bosom friend is my boss."
Rokeya Rafique, the CEO of Karmojibi Nari, informs Star Weekend that they aren’t certain of how many garments factories have implemented the HC order. “We recently conducted a (draft) survey on 3,117 female workers of 325 factories, where we found that only four percent have a committee to address sexual harassment and abuse,” she says.
"I was working late at night at the office when he showed up and tried to touch me."
“The thing is when something comes as guidelines, people don’t follow it properly. This is why we need proper laws. We have also submitted a draft law ‘Sexual Harassment at Workplace Prevention Act, 2018’ last year to the law ministry, but as of now, there is no update on it.”