By Joseph Chamie
New York, Feb 1 (IPS) – Most of the world’s women have experienced sexual harassment. Based on available country surveys, it is estimated that no less than 75 percent of the world’s 2.7 billion women aged 18 years and older, or at least 2 billion women, have been sexually harassed.In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 35 percent of women, or approximately 930 million women, have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. WHO considers this level of violence against women a major public health problem as well as a serious violation of the human rights of women.
Although definitions of sexual harassment of women vary globally, they generally center on unwelcome behavior, unwanted conduct and coercion of a sexual nature that violates a woman’s dignity and personal wellbeing and creates an intimidating, humiliating or hostile environment. Sexual harassment includes many things, including sexual assault, unwanted pressure for sexual favors and dates, unwanted deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, stalking, sexually lewd comments and unwanted communications of a sexual nature.
The estimated proportion of women who have experienced sexual harassment varies considerably across countries from lows of around 50 percent to highs above 90 percent. In addition to shortcomings in statistical measurement, survey design and sample coverage, the broad range of sexual harassment among nations reflects to a large extent differences in interpretation, reporting, policies and culture.
Some governments claim that sexual harassment is a Western problem and is virtually non-existent in their countries. In a number of instances, government censors are hobbling anti-sexual harassment campaigns, blocking the use of phrases about sexual harassment and warning activists against speaking out. However despite such efforts, it is widely recognized the sexual harassment of women is a global problem that exists in all societies and across classes.
It is important to note that sexual harassment can occur between persons of the opposite or same sex and both males and females can be either the victims or the offenders. However, most sexual harassment victims are women and the overwhelming majority of the offenders are men.
It is often the case that women are reluctant and even afraid to report sexual harassment due to embarrassment, humiliation, social stigma, victim blaming, job loss and retaliation. Young women are frequently afraid of the consequences of a sexual harassment complaint on their education, jobs, careers, future promotions and personal lives, especially when it takes place at the workplace or an educational institution.
Moreover, women generally recognize that by and large there are little or no consequences to the men who have sexually harassed them, particularly when it tends to be one person’s word against another. In many instances, the burden of proof placed on women is considered too high and the legal recourse is seen as too low as well as lengthy and entangling.
The impact of sexual harassment on women can be serious, depending on a variety of factors, in particular the nature and extent of harassment, the cultural setting, social support and the personal circumstances of the victim. In addition to feelings of anger and embarrassment, sexual harassment can result in serious health effects, including depression, distress, anxiety, muscle aches, headaches, negative self-esteem, sleeplessness and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD). The toll on women can also result in quitting a job, losing a promotion, stigmatization, disrupting schooling, unemployment, less income and damaged careers.
Sexual harassment of women also has economic costs for employers and countries. Workplace harassment can result in absenteeism, increased turnover, lower job satisfaction, decreased productivity and a barrier to women’s labor force participation, retarding the growth of GDP. In addition, sexual harassment settlements and court damages awards can amount to substantial payouts for employers.
In many societies there is a general tolerance of sexual harassment, being viewed as part and parcel of daily life, with many shrugging it off just as another unpleasant fact of a woman’s life, especially at the work place. Also, some women have come to recognize the pervasiveness of quid pro quo sexual harassment and sadly concluded that in order get what you want, you need to give them what they want.
In Nigeria, for example, it has been reported that if women chose to call out sexual harassment, they would be quarreling with their male counterparts all day. A notable instance of sexual harassment tolerance was observed when a Russian judge threw out a woman’s harassment case, ruling, “If we had no sexual harassment we would have no children”.
Tolerance of sexual harassment is now being challenged more actively than the past, especially through the use of social media. Growing numbers of women from all walks of life are sharing their sexual harassment experiences and frustrations with others and calling for accountability.
The recent anti-sexual harassment campaign has spread rapidly worldwide to no less than 85 countries with the rallying expression: Me Too, Я тоже, 我也是, BalanceTonPorc, Yo También, كمان أنا . An important consequence of the campaign is more women are coming forward and speaking up about having been sexually harassed, resulting in a growing number of men resigning, stepping down, falling from power, paying hefty settlements or going to jail.
However, there has also been a backlash to the anti-sexual harassment campaign. In France, for example, 100 prominent French women wrote a letter accusing the recent anti-harassment campaign of censorship and intolerance. According to them the movement to tackle sexual harassment represents a “puritanical … wave of purification” and they draw a strong distinction between rape, which is a crime, and attempts to seduce a woman. They reject the image of women as “as poor little things, this Victorian idea that women are mere children who have to be protected”.
Some prominent men in the entertainment industry have also played down the media attention to the harassment campaign. The Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky, for example, expressed a view popular among men who brush aside this issue, saying said that the whole world has been built on sexual harassment, with men making passes and women resisting. In light of all the accusations of sexual harassment, he joked, “It turns out that all men must be taken to court”.
Countries have taken a variety of steps to address the sexual harassment of women. For example, 189 countries have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Many national, regional and international legal systems have made sexual harassment illegal. Some 122 countries, including China, India, the United States, member countries of the European Union, and the entire United Nations system have laws and statutes prohibiting sexual harassment against women in the workplace with most providing mechanisms for victims to file a complaint with their employer and/or authorities. In contrast, 68 countries with 424 million working-age women, including 235 million who are employed, have no explicit legal prohibitions against sexual harassment at the workplace.
To avoid the sexual harassment of their female family members, some communities have gone to extremes with the practice of “purdah”, or the seclusion of women from public observation behind high-walled enclosures, screens and curtains within the home. Others have taken steps to segregate or separate the sexes in private and public places, including schools, offices, religious institutions, sport stadiums, social clubs and even public transportation.
Some societies have instituted concealing clothing or strict dress codes for women. However, conservative dress or authorized clothing, including the hijab, chador, the veil, burqa, and sleeved and long dresses, fails to protect women from unwanted attention and sexual harassment. Paradoxically, it seems that the more women cover their bodies, the more women are sexually harassed by men.
Some countries are taking additional steps to protect women from sexual harassment in public places. In France, for example, a parliamentary working group is preparing a proposal that will penalize men with fines who harass women on the street, including infringing on women’s freedom of movement. Mexico, which recently hosted a global forum in its capitol focusing on making urban public spaces safe for women and girls, has launched campaigns in its transit system and elsewhere aimed at changing the thinking and behavior of men about sexually harassing women.
In recent years businesses, offices and institutions have provided, and sometimes made mandatory, anti-sexual harassment training programs to their staff. However, the effectiveness of such programs has not been demonstrated and may even backfire.
In addition, the training programs coupled with anti-harassment policies seem more aimed at shielding employers from liability, litigation and costly jury awards than protecting female employees from sexual harassment. Aiming to limit the costs of sexual harassment claims and settlements, a growing number of businesses are purchasing employee practices liability insurance.
Based on available data, official reports and personal accounts of women, one cannot avoid concluding that the sexual harassment remains a major global problem impacting most of the world’s women. While laws, policies and programs against the sexual harassment of women are certainly necessary, they in themselves are insufficient.
Societies and cultures will need to change attitudes, norms and behavior of both men and women concerning the treatment of women at the work place and in public spaces. Women and men boldly speaking out, organizing support networks and taking effective action against the sexual harassment of women are critical ingredients for realizing the needed societal changes.
(Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer and a former director of the United Nations Population Division.)
By Joseph Chamie