The global statistics on harassment and abuse at the workplace are sickening, to say the least, and may reasonably compel one to wonder why very little research has been done to address the prevailing systemic failure at the different stages that contribute to its recurrence.
The discussion gained some momentum during the #MeToo movement with thousands of women around the world stepping up to expose the ugly reality of the working conditions for them in companies, including some of the biggest names in different industries.
According to a report published by the UN Women Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls, around 40-50 percent women have complained about experiencing sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace in European Union countries.
In India, the official reports of the government indicated that the instances of sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace have increased to such an extent that almost two cases in this regard are reported daily.
In Bangladesh, a leading daily newspaper in an article published in 7th March 2020 pointed out that almost 13 percent women experience sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace.
However, the figures do not represent the precise horrors of the reality. Most victims do not report it, believing that doing so will likely result in ostracism, career suicide or a direct threat to a complainant's ongoing employment, among other things.
Prevention is a better option here than cure
Sexual harassment and abuse has a strong correlation with psychological damage, leading to anxiety, depression and eventually suicide.
According to a study conducted on employees facing sexual harassment at workplace, the percentage of women employees who reported sexual abuse is more than 50%.
Another study revealed that employees who face sexual harassment in their initial careers tend to leave symptoms of depression that may last for a very long time.
The symptoms of the repercussion of sexual harassment include PTSD. Many victims of sexual harassment also tend to undergo the denial phase where they are so traumatised by the experience that they are unable to admit that they are traumatised or depressed.
This creates an unceasing amount of mental anxiety on the victim which leads to other health problems such as increased blood pressure, lingering headaches and even heart problems.
This is interlinked, because the part of our brain responsible for processing emotions is right next to the part that deals with the breathing system and the cardiovascular functions. Therefore, other functions of our body such as the metabolism or the autoimmune are also very likely to get affected.
Some employees facing sexual harassment, who are especially out of options, tend to face severe anxiety and panic attacks during their commute to work every day. This becomes a daily part of their lives and this leads to severe hair loss, change of weight and even insomnia.
While the victim is not at fault in these kinds of situations, many of them tend to face self-esteem issues as well as constant guilt without even realising what they are feeling guilty for.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that all necessary steps are taken to prevent harassment at the workplace. A well constructed and implemented body of law can play a crucial part in ensuring a safe workplace.
Is our law good enough for prevention?
Bangladesh is a party to several international human rights instruments.
This ranges from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 (ICESCR); the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women 1979 (CEDAW); including the ILO's Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention 1958 (Convention No. 111).
All these international instruments afford protection from sexual harassment, and the right to work with dignity. As a result, Bangladesh has adopted the National Women Development Policy 2011, which commits to acknowledge the aforesaid instruments and protect the rights of women in Bangladesh.
The Constitution of Bangladesh also expressly provides for equality before the law (Article 27) and prohibits discrimination against any person on the grounds of sex (Article 28).
Article 28 further provides that women shall have equal rights as that of a man and allows passing of domestic laws in favour of women. Although there are domestic laws in place to combat sexual harassment against women, the domestic statutory laws itself are perplexing and do not reflect the international standards.
Section 509 of the Penal Code, 1860 states that if anyone intends to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, with an intention that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, the same shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a maximum of one year, or with fine, or with both.
In addition to the Penal Code, section 10 of the Nari-O-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain 2000 states that an individual shall be committing an offence of sexual harassment if that person unlawfully touches or molests a woman or a child for sexual desire, in which case, the same shall be punished with three to ten years of imprisonment and/or fine.
Both these statutory provisions afford protection to a woman against an individual offender. Furthermore, although inadequate, Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Act, 2001 has provisions for sexual harassment in workplaces.
Moreover, to prevent sexual harassment in workplaces and educational institutes, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in BNWLA v Bangladesh and others issued 11 different circumstances that would constitute an act of sexual harassment.
The Hon'ble Court also required institutions to form Sexual Harassment Complaint Committees which would register and take appropriate disciplinary actions against the wrongdoers.
Rifat Rahman is a Barrister-at-Law, an Associate at Mahbub & Company and a Lecturer at LCLS (South).
Rawnak Tahnia is a marketing enthusiast who is doing a double major on Marketing and Supply Chain from Brac Business School.
Md Shafiuddin Jihad is a final year LLB honours student at BPP University, UK.
Arafat Reza is employed as a Teaching Assistant at the LCLS (South), Dhaka, Bangladesh.