“Don’t Blush Baby”: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

“Don’t Blush Baby”: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment is a form of workplace bullying. Workplace bullying is verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by an employer, employee, colleague (or manager), or  another person or group of people at work. Workplace bullying can happen in any type of workplace, from offices to shops, cafes, restaurants, workshops, community groups and government organisations. According to the United Nations General Recommendation 19 to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (UN, 1992), sexual harassment includes: unwelcome physical contact, verbal remarks and sexual advances. Sexual harassment in the workplace may involve a demand for sex in return for a job benefit or other actions that create a hostile, humiliating or intimidating working environment for the victim.

Workplace bullying can happen to volunteers, work experience students, interns, apprentices, casual and permanent employees. There are various types of workplace bullying which include repeated hurtful remarks or attacks, or making fun of your work or you as a person (including your family, sex, sexuality, gender identity, race or culture, education or economic background), sexual harassment, particularly unwelcome touching, sexually explicit comments, and requests that make you uncomfortable, excluding you or stopping you from working with people or taking part in activities that relates to your work. In male-dominated professions, female employees are known to have experienced various forms of gender-based harassment, including sexual harassment and rape. Surveys of workplaces from industrialized and developing countries (Sexual Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Desk Review) typically find that 30 – 50% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace at some point in their life (UN Secretary General, 2006). Research suggests that women are more vulnerable to sexual harassment in the workplace than their male counterparts.  Domestic workers appear to be particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, especially when they are foreign nationals working without proper documentation. Few studies from the Caribbean region have gathered empirical data about sexual harassment in the workplace, but those that have, suggest that sexual harassment is a common problem. Some evidence suggests that the risk of sexual harassment is higher for women who work in poor conditions or without legal benefits, as well as for women who lack social support.  Additionally, Rape myths prevail in many Caribbean societies. The idea that women “provoke” men to rape or “ask” to be raped by their behaviour or dress is a common perception that places blame on victims rather than on perpetrators. A study found that young men blamed girls and women for provoking forced sex if they were “flirting” or if they “unfairly” denied them sex. In Jamaica, a survey found that 66% of men and 49% of women agreed with the statement: “Women and girls sometimes bring rape on themselves” (Amnesty International, 2007). Negative attitudes about victims of violence are often handed down from one generation to another, as suggested by a study from Guyana in which a large proportion of children interviewed believed that girls often instigated sexual violence by wearing “revealing” clothing (UNICEF, 2005, cited by Amnesty International, 2007).  

Sexual harassment affects the mental and physical health of victims and their families.  The World Health Organization defines sexual harassment as “any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work”. Workplace bullying may also be discrimination if it is because of age, sex, pregnancy, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or certain other reasons. Sexual harassment and racial hatred are also against the law.  Employers and government agencies  have  a legal  and moral responsibility under Occupational Health and Safety and anti-discrimination law to provide a safe workplace. Employers have a duty of care for your health and well-being whilst at work. Employers or countries that allows bullying or sexual harassment  to occur in the workplace or public spaces violate the  rights of victims.  Employment discrimination laws, including sexual harassment policies should be implemented in all Caribbean societies to address this growing epidemic.

Felicia Browne, Gender Rights advocate, adds that  “ Women in the Caribbean, are not immune to sexual harassment practices. The recent Chris Gayle incident has drawn public attention to the need for effective sexual harassment laws to protect victims and their families. It highlights some of the challenges that women continue to face in such fields like Sports  which has little or no legislative policies on sexual harassment. Too often, sexual harassment and other  types of  sexual aggression have, at times led to human rights violations – including the right to live free from violence. Unlike some other forms of sexual harassment, gender-based harassment is not generally motivated by sexual interest or intent. It is more often based on hostility and is often an attempt to make the target feel unwelcome in their environment. In some cases, gender-based harassment may look the same as harassment based on sexual orientation, or bullying. The victims of sexual harassment are usually blamed for their abuses; and in several cases –  where the victims are females – they are chastised for their physical appearance. The victim is blamed for either for having “beautiful eyes” “body” or “wearing a short shirt”.  These types of  victim-blaming stereotypes absolve the sexual predator from responsibility. Sexual harassment is a human right violation as it acts to intimidate and humiliate its victims. Victims are often left bullied and violated due to the indirect and direct unwanted advances made by sexual perpetrators.  

While victims of sexual harassment can be male or female, women suffer disproportionately. Many young women are exploited and forced into sexual liaisons with their male employers to obtain or retain employment. Sexual favours are the “quid pro quo” for permanent job security or advancement. This type of harassment in the workplace frequently destroys a productive working environment and the self-esteem of those who experience it. The most common forms of non-partner sexual violence in the region include: sexual abuse of children and youth, trafficking and sexual exploitation, sexual violence during the migration process and sexual harassment in the workplace. Evidence indicates that the reproductive, sexual, physical and psycho-social health consequences for the victims of sexual violence can be severe and long lasting .

Most researchers agree that sexual violence is rooted in unequal  power relations between men and women in society. In particular, researchers have linked sexual violence with the following types of social norms: a) the legitimisation of violence against women by intimate partners; b) blaming women for rape and other types of sexual violence; c) the justification of male violence, e.g. due to their “inherent sexual desires”; d) viewing women as sexual objects. At this level, sexual violence is also associated with more generalised social acceptance of the use of violence. High levels of violence are particularly common in the Caribbean settings where internal conflicts have taken place. In most parts of the region, government responses to sexual violence have been weak. At the community level, a central factor associated with sexual violence is the lack of support for women’s right to sexual autonomy and for women who are victims of sexual violence. This lack of support comes from their own communities, from key institutions such as law enforcement and health services, workplaces and schools, but also from their families. At the level of relationships, there is a strong association between the dynamics of unequal control and power and sexual violence, particularly when: a) men are jealous; b) women refuse to have sex with their partners; and c) men feel at risk of losing control over the relationship. Individual risk factors for both experiencing and perpetrating sexual violence include: being young; living in a marginalised or excluded context; having experienced violence during childhood; and having rigid attitudes about gender roles. Studies from various settings, including from the Caribbean region, have found a strong association between witnessing and experiencing violence in childhood and perpetrating sexual violence during adulthood.

The  Caribbean region has however gained international recognition for progress made in legal reforms that address violence against women.  The Caribbean region and Latin America were the first regions in the world where all countries ratified the Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the 9 first to sign a regional treaty specifically aimed at eliminating violence against women: the Convention of Belem do Para. At present, nearly all countries in the region have incorporated the issue of violence against women into national legislation, by criminalising sexual violence and strengthening sanctions against perpetrators. However, many problems remain. For example, in some countries, the laws addressing violence against women are situated within the framework of legislation on domestic and family violence. Moreover, enforcement of laws in the region is often weak, and the justice sector response to survivors of sexual violence has serious deficiencies. In addition to legal reforms, governments in almost all countries in the region have developed programmes, plans and policies to address violence against women. Unfortunately many of these actions, while good in theory, remain unimplemented or unsustainable after pilot efforts, despite different mechanisms to close the gap between theory and practice. The literature reviewed found that women who report sexual violence face many difficulties. Women who disclose experiences of sexual violence most often first tell a family member (such as a mother), a friend, neighbour or religious advisor. It is estimated that only around 5% of adult victims of sexual violence in the region report the incident to the police. Key reasons why many women do not report sexual violence include: a) stigma, shame and fear of discrimination; b) fear of reprisals from the perpetrator; c) feelings of guilt; d) complexity of reporting the crime; and e) lack of support from family and friends; and the expectation that the law enforcement would be ineffective or even abusive. When women do seek services, they most often seek support from the health care and legal sectors; however, the quality of service responses by both sectors is generally poor..

Across the region, researchers have documented many failings of these sectors, including: a lack of basic infrastructure; discriminatory and patriarchal attitudes and behaviours of service providers who justify the actions of perpetrators and blame the victims, resulting in re-victimisation; the failure of services to protect women from retributive actions by perpetrators; lack of privacy and confidentiality, and structural problems such as insufficient personnel, overly bureaucratic and complicated procedures. These situations are particularly acute in marginalised and poor areas, especially among indigenous women and in conflict settings. As this review will illustrate, despite deficiencies, some recent progress has been made in the region to develop strategies to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

These advances include improvements to policy and legal frameworks, as well as efforts to strengthen prevention (Sexual Violence in the Caribbean: A Desk Review 10)  and response strategies by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), most notably in urban areas. Primary prevention efforts aimed at changing behaviour and providing support services to victims have been pursued through expansion of services, educational and capacity building interventions, raising awareness and community mobilisation, promoting public safety, and working with men and boys. Many of the most promising efforts have been driven by civil society, implemented through NGOs, and based on a human rights and gender perspective. Operations research on interventions and programmes is relatively new to the region. Some studies have assessed the service responses to survivors of sexual violence, mainly in the health sector.. Generally, however, information on the effectiveness, quality and impact of sexual violence programmes is limited throughout the region. Future research should focus on developing and analysing empirical data in settings where little data exists; gaining a more in-depth understanding of sexual violence using a combination of empirical data and social and anthropological theory, including different actors and utilising diverse methodologies; and conducting research that supports the development of prevention strategies and the implementation and evaluation of laws, policies and programmes.

As a result, victims receive little or no retribution of these sexual offenses. In several cases where women are victims of sexual harassment, the victims are either removed from their current post or opt to resign.  Browne adds that   “as a form of gender-based violence, sexual harassment seeks to dehumanize its victims by regarding victims as a devoid of human value,  and dignity.  Such victims are perceived as objects to satisfy a sexual desire or gratification.

Unlike some other forms of sexual harassment, gender-based harassment is not generally motivated by sexual interest or intent. It is more often based on hostility and is often an attempt to make the target feel unwelcome in their environment. In some cases, gender-based harassment may look the same as harassment based on sexual orientation, or homophobic bullying.

In many Caribbean countries,  workplace harassment legislation prohibits all forms of discrimination based on sex – and this includes sexual harassment. It  prohibits reprisal or “payback” where a person raises issues or complaints of sexual harassment. Reprisal includes such things as being hostile to someone, excessive scrutiny (for example, at work), excluding someone socially or other negative behaviour because someone has rejected a sexual advance or other proposition (such as a request for a date).

Employment and discrimination laws  protect both men and women from sexual harassment, but women are more affected than men. International human rights conventions have recognized sexual harassment as an abuse of power that can reinforce a woman’s historic lower status compared to men. Sexual harassment can happen in all social and economic classes, ethnic groups, jobs and places in the community. Sexual harassment can limit a person’s ability to earn a living, get housing, get an education, feel safe and secure, and take part fully in society. Victims of sexual harassment can have physical and emotional effects, including anxiety, depression, fatigue, weight loss, nausea and stomach problems, inability to sleep, withdrawal from relationships, self-blame, reduced self-esteem, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The effects of sexual and gender-based harassment on young people may be particularly harsh. As well as feeling the effects listed above, they may stop doing schoolwork and taking part in school-related activities, they may skip or drop classes, or they may drop out of school entirely. They may also abuse drugs and/or alcohol to cope. In extreme cases, they may think about or attempt suicide. Organizations that do not take steps to prevent sexual harassment can face major costs in decreased productivity, low morale, increased absenteeism and health care costs, and potential legal expenses. Everyone should know about the anti-sexual harassment policy and the steps in place for resolving complaints. Effective sexual harassment policies can limit harm and reduce liability. It also promotes the equity and diversity goals of organizations and institutions and makes good business sense. All responsible parties should monitor their environments regularly to make sure they are free of sexually harassing behaviours. Taking steps to keep a gender- neutral  environment will ensure  more peaceful interactions within the workplace and public spaces.


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