Sexual harassment, a threat to human rights
Why and how governments should take action to combat it
Sexual harassment isn’t just bad for business, causing losses in productivity, talent, and even financial means, it is also bad for humanity, threatening people’s human rights. Sexual harassment in the workplace violates the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” contained in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Although the fight to protect and promote this right has often been centred on fair and good physical conditions at work, i.e. prevention of work-related injuries or death, sexual harassment also poses a serious threat to working conditions by creating an environment that is mentally, emotionally, and physically unsafe for some individuals. How does sexual harassment make the workplace unsafe?
Sexual harassment violates people’s dignity and can negatively impact their health in many ways. For example, sexual harassment can cause depression, anxiety, insecurity, and shame. It can also provoke headaches, lethargy, trouble sleeping, and a slew of other health issues. Considering the unsafe work environment sexual harassment creates and its serious, negative effects on people, there must be a greater effort to combat it.
While addressing sexual harassment in the workplace is often thought of as the responsibility of business leaders, and it is, governments share this duty as the primary actors responsible for protecting human rights. Governments can and should play an important role in cracking down on sexual harassment in the workplace, by creating laws that prohibit it, as well as by establishing standards for prevention, monitoring, and enforcement.
In June 2019, the International Labour Conference (ILC) paved the path for governments to lead the fight against sexual harassment at work by adopting a convention, the first international labour standard of its kind, that lays out steps to
“promote and realize the right of everyone to a world free from violence and harassment” .
The Convention requires all ratifying members to prohibit harassment, develop prevention plans, such as information campaigns, ensure effective investigations into complaints, and protect victims from retaliation, in addition to other relevant actions. The ILC also developed recommendations to help countries implement the Convention.
Moving Forward Some countries have already taken important steps that align with the Convention’s core principles. For example, Belgium prohibits sexual harassment against interns, subcontractors, and other non-traditional employees. In Malaysia, the government now recognises employment-related sexual harassment that occurs beyond the physical office space. This includes harassment “arising out of and in the course of employment”, such as work-related events.
Lebanon, a country where sexual harassment is widespread, recently followed suit by adopting a new law that made sexual harassment a crime and established protections for both victims and whistleblowers. However, the law falls short of meeting international standards by leaving prevention, monitoring, and other important actions to combat sexual harassment unaddressed.
Additionally, the new law’s vagueness contributes to its weakness. For example, it states that there should be steps to protect victims and witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual harassment incidents. However, it does not clearly define those steps. By failing to establish concrete actions to protect these individuals, the law makes them vulnerable to re-traumatisation. As human rights groups have rightfully pointed out, these shortfalls will act as deterrents for reporting sexual harassment and prevent the law from ever being effective.
While the steps taken by Belgium, Malaysia, and Lebanon are important, they are not enough. These countries, and others, should embrace the Convention and use it as a resource and guide for combatting sexual harassment in the workplace. There is no time to waste. Human rights are on the line and it is the responsibility of governments to protect them.
Written By: Elizabeth Stallard, Contributing Author at Metta Space
Elizabeth Stallard is a human rights advocate and researcher who holds a Master in International Relations from IE University in Madrid, Spain. She previously conducted research for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, increased awareness of immigrants’ rights, and supported former U.S. First Lady Laura Bush’s work as an advocate for women’s rights.
Edited By: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space