Time Magazine has named “The Silence Breakers” – those who have come forward to denounce sexual harassment and abuse in 2017 – its person of the year. It’s a fitting end to a watershed year of activism against the violence and harassment that women of all ages, classes and nationalities, as well as some men, have to experience in the course of trying to do their jobs.
It’s a well-known fact that 1 in 3 women (35 percent) worldwide have faced either physical or sexual violence from their intimate partner or sexual violence from someone who isn’t their partner.
Studies in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea have found that between 30 and 40 percent of women suffer workplace sexual harassment. In Nairobi, 20 percent of women report being sexually harassed at work or school.
These figures are borne out by our own studies at the International Center for Research on Women. We recently conducted an analysis of garment value chains in a number of countries, including Bangladesh and India.
When female garment workers in Bangladesh describe the violence that they experience in factories – and similarly, in their homes and communities – they use the Bangla term “nirjaton,” meaning “torture.” This word is frequently used to refer to physical or verbal abuse – even severe beatings – by factory managers and supervisors. This abuse includes slapping or yelling at the women, forcing them to work late to meet impossible production quotas, denying them toilet breaks and even extorting sexual favors. These women have no legal or social recourse.
In India, female garment workers face the threat of abuse – physical, verbal and sexual – from male supervisors, which, according to a 2015 report from the International Labor Organization, is “the norm.” Verbal abuse includes scolding, shouting, vulgar language, name calling and belittling women workers. Threats of termination for workers was reported by nearly one-third of the 432 garment workers who were interviewed for the study, followed closely by threats of having additional work imposed on them, which was reported by one-quarter of respondents.
Sexual harassment within factories is particularly problematic because it is rarely defined or acknowledged. According to the workers and managers we interviewed, gender-based violence is narrowly defined as physical violence, and more commonly as rape. Any other form of physical, mental or verbal harassment is not considered violence, and as a result becomes “invisible.”
Impetus for Change
These findings draw attention to the pervasive nature of women’s experience of violence. But they also provide impetus to advocate for change. This year, the #MeToo campaign has revealed how frequently women and girls, and occasionally men, encounter sexual harassment in the workplace.
The International Trade Union Congress is running a campaign to build support for the adoption of a convention the prohibits violence against “violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work.” They also aim to mobilize trade union action to eradicate gender-based violence from the world of work.
The International Labor Organization is now working toward an international standard on violence in the workplace, paving the way for countries to enact laws and mobilize labor inspection services and judiciary to protect the integrity of workers against abuse, harassment and violence.
What We’ve Learned
What we have learned from #MeToo has been profoundly unsettling. And to date, it has focused largely on prominent male abusers in positions of power and wealth. But as we know, the experience of violence at work spans all jobs and sectors, from hotel cleaning services to Hollywood, finance and agriculture.
In the U.S., Human Rights Watch reported that up to 80 percent of female farm workers have experienced sexual harassment. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has made abolishing gender-based violence in U.S. agriculture one of its top priorities, and they have had impressive results so far.
They have developed the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which contains a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault, violence, forced labor and child labor.Individual offenders of this policy are suspended from working on any signatory farm for up to five years, while a second offense merits a lifelong ban. Additionally, if growers are not in compliance with this rule, they are dropped from the program and will likely lose important buyers in the process.
The Fair Foods Standards Council strongly encourages growers to reduce the risk of sexual harassment and assault by training workers on these issues immediately upon being hired. In the 2015 Annual Report, the council reported that 95 percent of participating growers have implemented company-led training on violence prevention for both workers and supervisors. Training is paid on the clock and includes lessons on the rights and responsibilities of each worker, as well as information on how to report violations of these policies.
Initiatives like these show that unions and employers can be fundamental allies in the efforts to end workplace violence. They also demonstrate that access to justice and legal support is critical, that training works and that sanctions can be very effective. Beyond this, such initiatives show that simply working to shed light on habituated practices can begin to shift social norms and expectations that legitimize violence and harassment of women and girls.
The #MeToo campaign has shown that even some of the most powerful perpetrators can be shamed into admitting their guilt when enough people come together to denounce their actions. Let’s applaud the bravery of those who speak out and support the workplace policies that bring about change. But let us also remember those many women who cannot be brave for fear of retaliation, and the economic imperative to continue to work in the face of violence.
This is part of a series of articles to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.
The views expressed in this article belong to its author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.