WOMENAID µ INTERNATIONAL

VIOLENCE IN THE WORKPLACE AND SOCIETY

"A little bit of rape is good for a man's soul".

Normal Mailer, 1972.

If men find it so easy to abuse the women they are most intimate with - their wives, daughters, nieces or granddaughters - it is only too clear how easy they must find it to abuse other women who are strangers to them. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace affects millions of women around the world regardless of their profession, but legal systems offer them virtually no protection.  Even when they do have legal recourse, the fear of being fired, penalised or ridiculed, or else the promise of a much-wanted promotion, keeps many women silent.  The tautology of the secretary/mistress might be a cliché, but when management has to choose between losing a highly qualified and competent male executive and a dispensable female secretary, the choice is obvious. 

Sexual harassment in the workplace typically ranges from mildly distasteful sexist comments and jokes, pornographic pin-up posters, provocative electronic mail and X-rated computer software all the way to outright assault and rape in extreme cases.  Sexual favours rather than merit and hard work often remain the determinants of a women's professional career in a male-dominated workplace.  For example, in England sexual harassment affects one in seven women, and one in five professional women, according to a recent survey y the London School of Economics.   

At Cambridge University, a 1989 study found that one in ten women undergraduate students reported unsolicited sexual harassment from dons and one in three students suffered similar unwanted sexual attention from male students. No code of conduct or disciplinary framework exists, however, to deal with such complaints.  Sexual harassment also affects domestic servants, factory workers, women in the informal sector, and virtually all professions throughout the world. 

In the absence of a legal definition of sexual harassment in most countries, few mechanisms exist to combat it.  Sexist language, leering, pinching, advances and an abusive working environment are not ground for legal action.  Only physical assault, a criminal offence, provides adequate cause for filing a legal suit and it is often difficult to prove in court. 

In the United States, sexual harassment was not recognised by law until the mid-1970s.  It was only in 1980 that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published a set of guidelines identifying harassment and hostile-environment harassment.  Six years later, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that sexual harassment constituted a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Now, as courts extend the definition of sexual harassment and penalise companies with punitive damages, some companies are being forced to listen to women's demands for dignity in the workplace. 

After decades of inertia, Europe has begun making some headway in combating sexual harassment.  In July 1991, the European Community adopted a new Code of Practice of the Protection of the Dignity of Women and Men at Work which encourages employers and workers to draw up a company policy statement so as to ban sexual harassment, to appoint trained personnel to handle complaints and to agree on guidelines for disciplinary proceedings. 

Spain, and more recently France, have made sexual harassment a criminal offence though, as the new laws are vague, it might prove difficult for women to exercise these newly granted rights.  As of mid-1991 Britain and Ireland had recognised sexual harassment in judicial terms but had not yet adopted laws against it. 

In addition to harassment in the workplace, women are also prime candidates as victims of violence.  Few women walk the streets at night without genuine fear for their safety.  There is growing evidence that crimes against women are rising the world over. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, the number of men charged with rape increased by 134 percent between 1970 and 1980, even though the population rate rose by under 30 per cent in that time.  In the United States, three out of four women will be victims of at least one violent attack in their lifetime, the Justice Department recently disclosed. 

Sexual assault is the single most under-reported crime in most societies.  Virtually all sexual assaults are against women.  In the United States, rape is increasing four times faster than other crimes, and at present one woman' is raped every six minutes.  This chilling statistic becomes even more shocking considering that only one in ten rape cases are ever reported. 

Popular culture reflects the leniency afforded to rapists and the contempt shown toward rape victims.  For example, in 1983 a British parliamentarian replied to a question on paedophilia by relating that the maximum penalty for indecent assault on girls aged 13-16 was two year's imprisonment, while the penalty for assault on boys was 10 years.  In another example, Judge William Reinecke described a five-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted by her mother's boyfriend in Wisconsin, USA in 1982 as "an unusually sexually promiscuous young lady". 

Even though sexual crimes against women are on the rise in many countries, little is being done to change the legal process that makes it virtually impossible for women to prove they have been raped.  Many women prefer to keep silent rather than be twice victimised by a legal system that in insensitive to their plight.  There is an urgent need for both sexual harassment and violence against women in society to be addressed at the national and international levels to expedite a strategy of action.  

Source : United Nations New York 1991: Women: Challenges to the year 2000

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