By Johanna Higgs and Amal Ben Hadda
Rabat – Throughout the world, regardless of country, continent or religion, sexual harassment is a serious problem. Women and girls make up over half of the global population and yet are still persistently targeted by sexually aggressive behavior from men on the street, the workplace and online.
Sexual harassment is usually aggressive and lewd in nature and is done with the intention to humiliate, degrade or sexually subdue another for one own personal enjoyment. Whether it is lecherous staring, disrespectful comments, unwanted touching or any other unwanted sexual attention, sexual harassment can make life very uncomfortable and very difficult for those who are subject to it.
The United Nation’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women defines sexual harassment as, ‘any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favor, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. While typically involving a pattern of behavior, it can take the form of a single incident.’
Sexual harassment in far too many cases is dismissed or tolerated because of apologetic attitudes that suggest that a woman holds the responsibility for the harassment perpetrated against her. Common excuses include blaming her for dress,for walking alone in the street or being present in certain areas such as bars or nightclubs, which then somehow makes her responsible for the actions of men.
The harm caused not only by sexual harassment itself, but also by these attitudes that blame victims for the violence perpetrated against them, is tremendous. Studies have shown that victims of sexual harassment can experience long term depression and feelings of self blame. It has also been shown that there is a link between experiences of sexual harassment and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Recognizing the mental and physical damage caused by sexual harassment,two hospitals in Paris, Saint-Antoine and Tenon, have, with the assistance of medical staff, provided psychiatric services since June 2012 to support victims of sexual harassment.
It is essential that we as a global community, push to change these mindsets that see women’s bodies as fair game for comment, judgment and public ownership in shared spaces. Whilst a number of countries have already taken steps to criminalize sexual harassment, it is essential to stop the trivialization of sexual harassment as seen throughout the world by governments, law enforcement officials and individuals themselves.
It is essential that the full harm caused by sexual harassment is recognized and that strict action is taken to punish perpetrators of such behavior. In the same way that we do not make excuses for actions that have the potential to cause severe psychological damage, such as murder, rape terrorism, we must not make excuses for sexual harassment.It is essential that that all nation states throughout the world not only recognize the need to criminalize sexual harassment but call for it to be recognized as a crime against humanity.
A number of treaties have already recognized the harmful nature of sexual harassment and have called for member states to take action to ensure that women are protected from such behavior. These include,
The Charter on the Fundamental Rights of the European Union which specifically enshrines the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex and Article 23 obligates states to ensure equality between men and women in all areas. This includes clarifying that sexual harassment constitutes discrimination on the ground of sex.
The Beijing Platform for Action para. 178 recognizes sexual harassment as a form of violence against women and as a form of discrimination and calls on multiple actors including government, employers, unions and civil society to ensure that governments enact and enforce laws on sexual harassment and that employers develop anti harassment policies and prevention strategies.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa for example, obligates State Parties to take appropriate measures to protect women from all forms of abuse, including sexual harassment and to ensure transparency in recruitment, the promotion and dismissal of women and to combat and to punish sexual harassment in education and the work place.
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence obligates states in Europe to reform laws and to implement practical measures to protect women from violence. Article 40 states, ‘Parties shall take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that any form of unwanted verbal, non verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment is subject to criminal or other legal sanction.’
The Organization of American States also recognizes sexual harassment as an issue of violence against women. The Inter American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women affirms the right of women to be free from violence, including sexual harassment in employment or any other context and requires states to impose penalties and enact legal provisions to protect women from harassment and other forms of violence. Article 2 states that sexual harassment in the workplace, educational setting, health facilities or any other place constitutes as violence against women.
Such treaties are indicative that across the globe we have already started to see a cultural shift in the normalization and widespread acceptability of sexual harassment. However, due to the global and widespread nature of sexual harassment and the extreme levels of psychological and physical harm caused, on both moral and legal grounds sexual harassment should be regarded as a crime against humanity. Indeed, sexual harassment is in line with the definition of crime against humanity as per the Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC Statute).
Article 7(e) of the statute states ‘imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law,’ constitute as a crime against humanity. When a woman feels afraid to leave her home, go to work, then sexual harassment deprives her of being able to fully participate in social and economic life. The level of fear and terror produced from high levels of sexual harassment may have similar affects to those produced through terrorism and other severely harmful acts. Sexual harassment should therefore should be considered in the same way.
According to the statue Article 7(h) crimes against humanity include ‘persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3 or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law.’ Sexual harassment might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation of another, as defined by the United Nations. This can count as persecution on the grounds of gender.
Article 7(g) of the statute says, ‘rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity.’ The psychological damage caused by extreme levels of sexual harassment can be that similar to any of the above mentioned.
Article 7(k) of the statute states crimes of humanity includes, ‘other humane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.’ Depending on the frequency in which the sexual harassment occurs and how often it takes place, the effects of sexual harassment can cause extreme stress and depression. Psychologists and social workers report for example, that extreme sexual harassment can have the same damaging effects as rape or sexual assault.
It is essential that every action to counter attitudes that justify sexual harassment are taken. Without any legal protections, women may find themselves trapped between harassers and those who excuse sexual harassment, leaving her with no means to find protection,all which makes it more likely that she will be harassed again. This vicious circle created by sexual harassment and its apologists will ensure that sexual harassment not only continues but the psychological harm also continues.
As a global community we need to stand up together and acknowledge, that regardless of our cultural background is, sexual harassment, universally, causes harm and therefore universally, needs to be condemned. We need to ensure that throughout the world women are given full access to the justice system and we need to ensure that judges, lawyers and police are trained in the importance of enforcing these laws.
We must understand that sexual harassment, be it on the street or in the workplace, has the capacity to cause tremendous psychological harm as well as deny women their full potential to be able to fully participate in social and economic life. Regardless of our cultural or religious beliefs, it should be clearly understood, that sexual harassment is never, ever acceptable and is always criminal. We must understand that if we don’t punish perpetrators of such behavior, we are allowing a crime against humanity to carry on.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.