It Happen Fi Real! Yes, it really did happen. Don’t you believe me?
How can a woman working in the private sector make progress in her work and career if she fears sexual harassment – and worse still, if she realizes no one really cares or believes her claims? Moreover, how can a company expect to be competitive if it ignores such behavior under its roof and allows such a toxic environment to develop? It is harmful not only to the women affected but to all their work colleagues at every level in the company. It’s like the proverbial bad apple that makes everything else go bad.
First of all: Do you know about the Win-Win Programme? Under the slogan “Gender Equality Means Good Business,” it was launched in Jamaica in September, 2018, in six countries regionally, including Jamaica. The International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Union and UN Women have got together to work on “the business case for gender equality.” The ultimate goal is to bolster women’s economic empowerment and leadership, which has to form the basis for sustainable, inclusive and equitable growth. In Jamaica, UN Women has been working with the Bureau of Gender Affairs to develop a multimedia toolkit. This was introduced at a sensitization forum on sexual harassment in the private sector workplace on December 11 in Kingston.
The International Centre for Research on Women reports that people who are sexually harassed at work experience anxiety, confusion, are unable to focus on their work and even suffer from physical health issues. They may dread going to work in the mornings; they may want to leave their good job.
At the forum, we looked at the digital media products that will help to raise awareness, among both private sector employees and employers, on the implications and complexities of workplace sexual harassment (both verbal and physical). Other key organizations, such as the Jamaica Employers Federation, Private Sector Organization, civil society organizations, academia and trade unions (many of whom were represented at the forum) will be able to use these materials to sensitize their members.
So what is sexual harassment? In the workplace, there are often power struggles. Sexual harassment can be used as a weapon, a way of wielding power and creating an unequal relationship. UN Women and its partners define it as “any unwelcome or unwanted sexual conduct.” Video clips, text, audio messages, graphics and other materials were presented by multimedia communications consultant Vilma Gregory – who noted that as a budding entrepreneur, she had also experienced such harassment in her early years. She had “moved on,” she said. But it is an all too common reality, which seems to have embedded itself into the private sector landscape. It is not just a matter between two people; it creates an atmosphere of distrust.
By the way, although other men were invited to this event, there was only one present: the urbane and gentlemanly Vincent Sweeney, who heads the Caribbean Sub-Regional Office at the UN Environment Programme. The women appreciated Mr. Sweeney’s presence, although he might have felt somewhat self-conscious.
Project Manager at the European Union office in Jamaica, Vanna Lawrence, referred to the Spotlight Initiative, an ongoing major effort to tackle violence against women and girls implemented by the EU and United Nations – launched in 2017. Later, Woman Inc’s Joyce Hewett questioned whether intimate partner violence should be lumped in with the sexual harassment issue. However, some disagreed; this is also a workplace issue. The ILO believes that one form of violence can easily lead to another. One business representative said that some women arrive at work having been beaten at home, showing (and trying to hide) their injuries. It’s all part of the picture – women are doubly vulnerable, as “the stress starts before you arrive at the workplace,” said one participant.
Dr. Denise Chevannes, National Private Sector Specialist at the Jamaica Win-Win Programme, also reminded us of the seven Women’s Empowerment Principles, established by the UN to help businesses promote gender equality and empower women in the workplace. A total of 2,744 companies have signed on to these principles. Eight companies in Jamaica have signed on. Good for them.
Senior Director at the Bureau of Gender Affairs Mrs. Sharon Coburn-Robinson provided a detailed overview of the current state of sexual harassment legislation in Jamaica. Tabled in July of last year by Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport, Hon. Olivia Grange, the Sexual Harassment Bill is now to be considered by a Joint Select Committee, which is expected to sit on a weekly basis this month. I hope this will, indeed, happen, to expedite this long-overdue legislation. Mrs. Coburn-Robinson said the Bill will be gender-neutral and will cover workplaces, institutions and accommodation (many people do not know of or report the harmful landlord/tenant relationships that can develop). And by the way, the workplace is not only an office. It can be any type of work space at all.
The concept of a Sexual Harassment Tribunal, to be introduced in the legislation, is a new one for Jamaica. Complaints will be reported and field officers will investigate. Sittings will be held and a chair appointed from a list of attorneys with relevant experience. The Tribunal will consist of four attorneys, four mediators and four qualified people from civil society. The Bureau will serve as the secretariat, and has consulted with the Ministry of Labour and Social Services’ Industrial Disputes Tribunal (IDT) on this matter. Importantly, the Tribunal will not be a Kingston-only entity, but will be island-wide. What remedies will be sought? They might be monetary compensation. In any event, confidentiality is key.
Also importantly, under this new legislation employers are liable. They must take responsibility.
After we had reviewed the multimedia presentations, the discussion became quite wide-ranging. A representative of the Jamaica Rural Women’s Network spoke powerfully about the general lack of respect shown for women. She is an older woman, living alone, who suffers continual stress as a result of her neighbor’s threatening behavior towards her. When she gets on the bus, she is subjected to obscene, misogynistic lyrics that degrade women and upset her. This vulnerability really concerned me.
There was also reference to a well-known Caribbean case – that of a whistleblower complaint of sexual harassment filed by an employee against the Chairman of Angostura in 2017, which resulted in a dismissal of all the allegations. In fact, accusations had been ongoing for some years, and by several employees. Do companies take sexual harassment seriously? Don’t they see that it’s in their interests to do so? This case damaged the reputation of a high-profile company with a proud history.
The challenges for women in the region are already great enough. Only two percent (!) of companies in the region have a woman CEO, according to UN Women’s 2017 report on the Progress of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unemployment among women remains persistently lower than among men in Jamaica and across the region, the report notes, about sixty percent of women are in “informal” employment, or engaged in mostly unpaid (and unrecognized) care work.
There is a particular challenge in Jamaica, though, and it’s one that is all too familiar: a lack of data, Dr. Chevannes pointed out. The last survey on sexual harassment was in 1999! We need to update ourselves.
I see sexual harassment as fundamentally a human rights issue. Whether it is in a financial corporation, a start-up, a small business or a neighborhood store; or on the street (where it is a commonplace, everyday occurrence in Jamaica), or in the home. Women’s rights are human rights.
And as was noted at the forum: “Standing up for your rights is not a weakness, but a strength.”