In September 2015, states from across the world committed to ending all forms of violence against women by 2030. Two years later we were saddened and angered by wave after wave of accounts of sexual harassment emerging initially from Hollywood but then from athletes, hotel workers, parliaments and elsewhere. Using the power of solidarity, and backed by the support of diligent and respectful journalists, women helped the world wake up to the daily horrors of sexual harassment and assault. Women live with the knowledge that hands can be shoved inside their clothing; they can be groped, grabbed by the genitals, targeted with sexual names or slurs, or raped. Women – as actual and potential targets of abuse – forego their freedom of movement and live with the ubiquitous fear of violence. But it is the abusers who need to change their behaviour. All countries are obliged, under international law, to end this violence no matter who is the abuser.
Initial surveys as part of UN Women’s safe cities programme show that 80-90% of women report incidences of sexual harassment in public city spaces (rates for men who report sexual harassment are lower but still troubling). That’s as many as four out of five women you pass on the street or meet on the train or sit within the work canteen. The figure in Europe was one in two women in 2014. The widely quoted lifetime prevalence of violence against women is one in three, but if we broaden the definition to take into account sexual harassment, this figure may be as many as two in three women – or perhaps higher. Sexual harassment is not new, but women have forced it into public discussion and on to the public policy agenda. There have been some notable responses – the Japanese government now requires senior civil servants to undergo prevention training before they can be considered for promotion; Jamaica is introducing a sexual harassment bill; a doctor’s union in New Zealand is investigating sexual harassment in the profession; US lawyers working on behalf of immigrant farm workers are highlighting the connections between sexual harassment and wage theft as well as other forms of exploitation; the Telegu film industry in India announced it was establishing a sexual harassment redressal forum; and Australia is conducting a national inquiry on sexual harassment, which the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has linked to the #MeToo movement.
At the UN, my workplace, we are facing reports of inadequate systems to deal with sexual harassment. It is in this context that the UN secretary-general has established a task force to review current practices in preventing and addressing sexual harassment and make recommendations for change. At a recent meeting in London, the secretary general and his senior team issued a statement acknowledging that male-dominated culture and unequal gender relations are at the heart of sexual abuse, harassment and violence whether it happens in the UN, in government, the private sector or civil society. They committed to strengthening victim-centred approaches and the development of safe workspaces. UN Women’s executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ncguka, appointed me as executive coordinator and spokesperson on sexual harassment in March. We bring what has been learned from decades of work to end violence against women to the deliberations on sexual harassment, and we are pushing for women – staff and external experts – to be consulted in this process. We know that women’s organisations, if free to operate as needed and with predictable, adequate funding, have been key to policy development on violence against women so we will draw on their expertise. We know that UN Women must look in-house to review whether we are doing the best we can on this issue. Consultation with staff has begun.
Women across the world have put abusers on notice – they have demonstrated what zero tolerance looks like to victims of sexual harassment. Unlike so many previous times, employers, allies in the media and the UN need to make common cause. This is a moment where our best collective efforts may make a real shift in the culture that enables or shuts down gender inequality and discrimination. Will this see a step change towards ending violence? The answer is in our hands. Women have imagined this world, states have heard the call – now we must all make it real.
Credit: Puna Sen for The Guardian, 6 July 2018.
Purna Sen is the executive coordinator and spokeswoman on sexual harassment and discrimination at UN Women.