Sexual Harrassment – In The Workplace & On The Street By SIMRAN GAJRAJ
Most people identify the term ‘sexual harassment’ as limited to the catcalls and jeers we sometimes hear on the street.However, it has a much broader definition; and sometimes exists in less noticeable forms in other everyday situations- such as at the workplace. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Sexual Harassment is defined as ‘uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate.’ This is represented in Guyanese Law under the Prevention of Discrimination Act of 1997. Under Section 2 of the Act- ‘sexual harassment’ refers to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace or in connection with performance or work which is threatened or imposed as a condition of employment on an employee or which creates a hostile working environment for the employee’. Section 8 of the same Act states: “Any act of sexual harassment against an employee committed by an employer, managerial employee or co-worker shall constitute unlawful discrimination based on sex.’ (This is within the meaning of Section 4 of the aforementioned Act.) Even though the law in Guyana focuses mostly on workplace and employer/employee harassment, it can occur in almost any situation. Sexual Harassment can take verbal and physical forms. Some examples include: • Whistling at someone • Cat calls • Unwanted sexual teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions • Unwanted hugging, kissing, patting, or stroking • Using unwelcome pet names to refer to an individual or a coworker.
While walking down a street in Guyana, you may hear whistles and lewd comments directed at you, especially if you’re a female. It is usually best to ignore these lewd advances, but in some cases, ignorance of the perpetrator leads them to anger. They usually retract their statement or sentiment coupled with a stinging insult. In some cases, these interactions may even end in physical violence. In my personal experience, there have been times-whilst experiencing this type of attention- that I question why I wore what I wore on that particular day. I’m sure that I am not the only one to have done this, but it is totally uncalled for as any person anywhere should be able to walk down the street and not be sexually harassed. Despite my view on this, there are some women that view these interactions as a ‘compliment’ or a sign that they are attractive. It depends on how we are socialized to view the power dynamic between men and women, and what we as individuals deem as ‘appealing’. Sometimes, interactions that can be viewed as harassment are normalized- as individuals think that stating their dissatisfaction will create an issue caused by something that is ‘not a big deal’. Eyewitness Guyana partnered up with the Ministry of Education as well as Help & Shelter in order to create a place where both men and women could share their street harassment experiences. They brought awareness to the comments men and women face by putting up posters indicating that these comments were not compliments. More programs like this need to be organized as it can help us as a society to examine our interactions and adjust accordingly. Individuals that experience sexual harassment in the workplace face an issue that can have an enormous effect on their career. They run the risk facing backlash as a consequence of reporting the unwanted advances or behaviour. Due to this, many times persons who do not wish to jeopardize their jobs stay quiet when faced with harassment at the workplace. Harassment in the workplace can also take the form of persons trading sexual favours or sex in order to be promoted. Employers can then refuse to promote individuals who deny their requests or unfairly dismiss them. In order to help counteract this issue, the Gender Equality Commission launched an Anti Sexual Harassment campaign in 2016. The Commission placed boxes at strategic locations countrywide in order to receive anonymous reports from women who were too afraid to speak up about their experiences at the workplace. This is a great measure that hopefully has stronger support in the future. Every company should have measures in place to prevent harassment and sustain an environment that encourage ALL persons to report any instances of unwanted conduct. As a society, we need to move toward creating an environment where perpetrators of sexual harassment are not protected. If you see a friend engaging in acts that may be harassment, despite how small it may be, you should call them out on it and educate them on the correct way to interact with a person. Who knows, he or she may believe that their behavior is acceptable. Sexual Harassment is an issue that will unfortunately
continue, especially in situations where there are power imbalances- and someone willing to manipulate it. However, as a society, we have a chance to educate the coming generation on what is deemed appropriate behaviour. We also have a chance to generate good working relationships in the workplace- keeping our interactions professional and having Human Resource managers in place with the adequate authority to properly deal with these issues. Standing up and speaking out is also a great solution to workplace harassment.Unfortunately, it’s a not too plausible one given the fact that many companies do not have any strategies in place to deal with such issues fairly. Programs, such as the one done by the Gender Equality Commission, are steps in the right direction and provide hope that we may be able to make a true difference in combatting workplace sexual harassment.