[STAR Magazine, September 12, 2008]
A working woman is an epitome of self-sufficiency and equality. She is expected to have overcome the socio-cultural dynamics of the gender battle and earned a place for herself in a brutally disparate system. But the work environment for women is anything but fair, from supervisors who hold back women’s advancement, to colleagues who make harassment a constant presence at work. In the absence of a code of conduct at organisations, and no legal support, it has an extremely negative impact on women’s performance and future in the workplace.
Hana Shams Ahmed
Fahima* used to work in a local NGO. Her supervisor regularly directed verbal sexual innuendos towards her. After work he would ask her to come to his office on the excuse of ‘additional work’. He would then tell her stories with sexual connotations. Ignoring his advances only made matters worse — he started getting aggressive. When she could not bear it any more, she told her husband what was going on. But her husband, instead of helping her, accused her of “leading him on” and asked her to quit her job. Facing this double blow, she came to Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyer’s Association (BNWLA) to file a legal complaint against her supervisor. Unfortunately, social and family pressure pushed her to change her mind — she not only withdrew her case after a few days — she eventually resigned from her job. In the end, both her workplace harasser and her husband satisfied their male egos at the cost of Fahima’s career.
Although women have become an integral part of the workforce (according to World Bank’s 2004 statistics, women make up 37 percent of the labour force), the environment is still brutally discriminatory. Women from factory floor to corporate high-rises have told a researcher at BNWLA that they have been harassed in some form while they were in their workplace. A garment worker said that she was asked to ‘go on a date’ with her employer if she wanted to get a job at the factory. A woman working in a television station said she had to do regular ‘sexual favours’ to her employer to keep her job. An NGO worker said that her colleague used to stalk her after she refused to have a relationship with him. A journalist complained that her colleagues regularly watched pornographic photographs on their computer when she was around. An intern at a bank said that a guard commented that the bank ‘was hiring very beautiful women these days’. Naturally, most of these women did not want to reveal their identities or details of the harassment to the public. The prevailing trend of blaming the victim (as demonstrated in Fahima’s story) keeps them silent.
Sexual harassment includes any unwelcome sexually motivated behaviour (whether directly or by insinuation) including physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, sexual remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. Working women are facing an angry and hostile reaction from men who don’t know how to deal with women in new and powerful roles. Advertisements in the media still portray women in stereotyped roles as housewives, beautiful sexualised objects and passive partners in a relationship. For women, getting harassed is almost an everyday occurrence. From comments and stares on the streets from strangers to sexual innuendos from colleagues and superiors is an overwhelming and daily gauntlet. Most cases are swept under the carpet, and women are blamed for ‘asking for it’ — the victim is blamed as she was ‘not wearing the right clothes’ or ‘not behaving in the proper way’. The double setback comes when families do not support the woman and as in Fahima’s case ask her to put a halt to her career. At the end of the day sexual harassment reduces the quality of working life, jeopardises women’s well being, undermines gender equality and imposes huge economic losses on the organisation.
Sustainable Development Networking Programme (SDNP) carried out a survey of women garment workers and found that the most common form of abuse was in the form of expletives. 40% of all workers and 80% of non-EPZ garment workers reported the use of sexual expletives in their workplace. They also complained of sexualised vocabulary and body language and working in a hostile, sexually charged work environment. The perpetrators were supervisors, linemen, line chiefs, and production managers. Many also complained of periodic hair pulling, stroking, and kissing of workers sitting at the machines. Workers did not complain because they feared losing their jobs and also feared retaliation and stigma outside the factory. 47% of all workers reported that sexual harassment impairs their productivity. Most of the rest of the workers reported being emotionally disturbed by sexual harassment.
BNWLA conducted a survey of 200 female workers of different categories who work in both the informal and formal sectors to know about the nature of harassment in the workplace. 44.6 percent of the respondents replied that they had been harassed at their place of work in some way, 27.8 percent replied that they hadn’t and 27.6 percent refused to answer. 30.6 percent of those who answered in the affirmative said that they were harassed by their immediate bosses, 18.8 percent replied that they were harassed by their colleagues. Some women workers in the corporate sector replied they were harassed by their junior colleagues.
The extent of the authorities’ reluctance to recognise sexual harassment as a significant offence hit national media headlines in 1998 when some students of Jahangirnagar University, under the umbrella of the political party in power, went on a rampage, raping and harassing women students on campus. It was not until months of protests that the authorities finally gave in and took inadequate action against the students. The university officials were reluctant to investigate the matter until it escalated into countrywide demonstrations and extensive media coverage in all major newspapers. Complaints of sexual harassment by teachers have also been made by many students in subsequent years. But women are usually too intimidated by the power dynamics of the student-teacher relationship to bring a complaint. Most of these cases have been very complex as evidence gathering in these cases is extremely difficult. A section of progressive teachers with the help of lawyers and women’s rights activists have been campaigning for a formal Policy against Sexual Harassment. To date there has been no step in the right direction towards approving such a policy. At Jahangirnagar University there is a renewed demand for a policy since a teacher of Drama and Dramatics department was freshly accused by students of sexual harassment in 2008.
BNWLA filed a writ petition (no 5916) under Article 102 (Powers of High Court Division to issue certain orders and directions, etc.) of the Constitution at the high court division of the Supreme Court to formulate guidelines/ policies to protect women from sexual harassment in work places/ educational institutions and other public places and take immediate steps to enact a proper legislation to address sexual harassment. Sexual harassment infringes the fundamental right of a woman to gender equality. Unfortunately there is very little in the constitution that binds work places or educational institutions to have guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in their premises. Article 10 (Participation of women in national life) of the Constitution says “Steps shall be taken to ensure participation of women in all spheres of national life”. Article 29.2 (Equality of opportunity in public employment) says, “No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office in the service of the Republic.”
Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an international document which Bangladesh has signed deals with sexual harassment at the workplace. But signing an international convention does not automatically make it part of the law. It has to be given a legislative form and a Bill has to be passed in Parliament for it to acquire the status of law.
Neighbouring India has already made significant progresses in dealing with sexual harassment at workplaces. In 1997, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark judgment on sexual harassment in work places in “Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan”. In this case, the Supreme Court expressed grave concern over the fact that there is no legislation to protect victims. Relying on the CEDAW, the Supreme Court directed that all institutions should set up complaint mechanisms to deal with complaints of sexual harassment at work places. The court directed that the committee should be headed by a woman and the majority of members should be women in order to ensure an unbiased enquiry. The Supreme Court guidelines came about due to the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a village level social worker, as punishment for having stopped a child marriage. Different human rights groups filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India, under the name ‘Vishaka’, asking the court to give certain directions regarding the sexual harassment that women face at workplaces. The result was the Supreme Court judgement, which came on 13th August 1997, and gave the Vishaka guidelines (The Politics of Silence, 2001).
Advocate Salma Ali, the director of BNWLA says that it’s high time there be a law that specifically addresses sexual harassment. “Sexual harassment must be acknowledged as a violation of right,” she says, “it needs to be defined properly because sexual harassment does not necessarily mean there has to be physical contact involved.”
Men harass because they can. They also do it as a violent, fearful reaction to the increased presence of women in formerly all-male enclaves. Sexual harassment involves an aggressor who holds (or presumes) a position of power over the victim. In a patriarchal culture this position of power is held by any man in any position. On the streets, a young delinquent has no power per se over a working woman going to her office. But he expects the woman to be too timid to retaliate to a whistle or obnoxious comment that he makes. Those who are in a structural power relationship (teacher-student, superior-subordinate) have an added advantage. They know that those at the bottom of the power pyramid will not protest in fear of losing their job or giving up their career, or simply facing the stigma from colleagues or families. Every woman knows she’s being harassed, what she needs are laws that protect her rights and give her legal action recourse. A law that forces workplaces and educational institutions to have guidelines for sexual harassment will ensure that women can speak up against harassment and get justice. Until that is ensured, women’s participation in the workforce will only be equal in NGO reports and government statistics.
* Names changed to protect identity of interviewees.