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Dr Charbel Maydaa and Bechara Samneh
Sexual harassment in the workplace can take many forms and negatively impact its victims. Covert harassment is related to job benefits, promotions, pay variances, and job security. Overt harassment is through creating an uncomfortable workplace setting that intimidates or abuses the individual. Such aggressions could be carried out physically, verbally, and non-verbally through different suggestive signals. As the World Bank reported, women are more at risk than men. This affects their performance, mental health, and infringes their basic human rights and dignity.
Such harassment is encountered across all fields of work from agriculture, to domestic work, education, fishing, fashion, health, journalism, public office, and the military as Human Rights Watch highlighted. Many of those fields, despite being of high violence exposure, remain without protection laws in the MENA region. This remains to be the biggest challenge in Arab countries as Ms Faten Abou Chacra from KAFA [a feminist, secular, Lebanese NGO seeking to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence] said. She explains that “in the absence of any law – the only protective measures available to women are whether or not the companies have an internal code of conduct that covers such issues or not”.
With so many lax regulations and policies within companies, many remain unaware that they are subjected to sexual harassment. Otherwise, those who are aware find themselves unable to report or seek support with the absence of laws that protect or criminalise sexual harassment. As Dr Marsha Henry from the Department of Gender Studies at London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and founding member of the Centre for Women, Peace and Security said: “It is very difficult to address sexual harassment in the work place. Victims need to provide so much evidence and usually by the time they realize that they have a case they have left the organization.”
The #MeToo became one of the most viral movements on social media against sexual harassment and violence. It was a global movement that started in the United States and spread worldwide across the world from China to Latin America and reaching the Middle East with #أنا_كمان.
Stories started emerging all over the MENA region on abuse, unequal pay for the same work, or sexual advances in the workplace. This does not come as a surprise since only 9 out of the 22 Arab countries have anti-sexual harassment laws in place.
Despite the bleak looking situation, many initiatives to counter gender-based harassment at work have been mobilised in the MENA region.
In Lebanon, similar campaigns were launched such as #mesh_basita, meaning it’s not okay, by the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Makroura campaign by KAFA. Such campaigns aimed to highlight the negative implications of every day sexual harassment of women and mobilise feminist movements, business, and government actors from different Arab countries and empower women to speak up.
Despite all current efforts, more is still required from the governments and employers. This lack of legal recourse available highlights the urgency and need for stronger measures to prevent work-related violence and harassment in the region.
On June 21, 2019, the International Labor Organisation (ILO) adopted the groundbreaking treaty, C190, in its Violence and Harassment Convention. It is the first of its kind to set the international legal standards for preventing and responding to violence and harassment at work.
C190 is holistic in its approach as it tackles the public and private sectors, formal and informal economies, and urban and rural areas. It provides critical guidance to governments on how to prevent this violence and how to protect workers from stigma and retaliation so they can speak up and get the justice they deserve irrespective of their contractual status. Additionally, it ensures to include the intersectionality of domestic violence and work as well. It provides the necessary steps that governments can take to help domestic violence survivors seek help without losing their jobs.
But the main question remains – How can C190 help activists and governments alike in pushing forth this agenda?
Dr Marsha answers by explaining that “what is interesting about this Convention is that it applies to the wider world of work and includes harassment or violence by third parties”, she then adds: “for the MENA region, it is important that this legal reform pertains to work places in particular because then it cannot be dismissed as being in the private or intimate spaces of people’s lives.”
This highlights the importance for governments to prioritize the ratification of ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention – which is why activists should also continue lobbying while the national and international awareness is at its peak. As more than half of the Arab countries are member states to the ILO, the convention requires them to adopt C190. As such, consultations with representative employers’, workers’ organizations, and different stakeholders are in need. Only through engaging the different stakeholders will the governments and policy makers be able to develop an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to preventing and eliminating violence and harassment. The next step would be the implementation through prevention, protection and enforcement measures, as well as guidance and training.
The treaty also helps by simplifying and setting out the main obligations for governments. First it highlights the elements of national laws and policies that can reflect promising practices. It does so by including comprehensive laws against harassment and violence at work and prevention measures such as information campaigns and identifying high-risk sectors. Second, it emphasises on the role of enforcement through inspections and investigations. Finally it offers accessibility for the survivors through complaint mechanisms, whistleblower protections, services, and compensation.
Therefore, C-190 becomes a very useful tool for advocates to use and improve the pre-existing legal and labour relations framework.
Currently different actors – private, public, grassroots, and civil society – are now advocating for a consolidated law to criminalize sexual harassment in Lebanon. Not only have the campaigns mobilised them, but also created new partnerships between local activists and the government to tackle the issue. In Lebanon, the Office of Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) has been working with several actors to bring about this change. Ms Faten Abou Chacra explains that the “Minister of State for Administrative Development and Reform had presented a draft law to the council of ministers about harassment and was ratified by the Joint parliamentary committees…after passing through the Administration and Justice Committee, we hope it gets sent to the General Authority for voting and approval”. Having the draft law discussed is seen as an achievement in itself in a country that is known for its slow law reform process.
Eventually, no economy can grow to its full potential unless the entire society participates fully and equally. Therefore, reforming legal frameworks is not only crucial to impact the careers of women only, but also in driving economic growth. It also offers new instruments to tackle future challenges of work such as workers’ mobility, independent investigations, diversification of employment contracts, and the impact of new information in labour relations and working dynamics. Yet, as Dr Marsha points out, activists need to be careful as to how these legal reforms are framed. She asks whether they could potentially result in the policing of women’s sexuality and ‘respectability’ in work spaces – or simply become a deterrent to women’s participation in the workforce.
At the end of the day, regardless of economic benefits, no individual should have to tolerate harassment or abuse. Unfortunately, it is still the inevitable reality to many women from the MENA region who are trying to keep their jobs and careers. Today, C190 is offers a major opportunity for the MENA region to end gender-based harassment and abuse while pushing forward safety and dignity at work. The journey may seem to be long, but it is already in catalysis.