Sexual harassment in the workplace is a global challenge, with more than 80 per cent of countries prohibiting such harassment and any accompanying improper behaviour.
This can include the abuse of power, bullying, and psychological harassment that results in a hostile work environment that hinders the ability of women and girls to promote their careers with dignity and respect. Sometimes the victims of such improper behaviour lose their jobs in workplaces that fail to protect the rights and dignity of victims and fail to offer a work environment free of harassment and of the retaliation that can arise from the harasser as well as from management itself.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a crime that can be identified as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating a staff member’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment or less favourable treatment because the employee in question rejects or submits to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.
Sexual harassment negatively impacts women’s economic empowerment and thus negatively impacts sustainable development and inclusive economic growth. Women’s economic empowerment is a potent means to strengthen women’s rights and achieve gender equality. All sectors tend to expand in a growing economy, attracting more women into the formal labour force and leading to better health and education outcomes for women and men alike. Thus, women’s economic empowerment means working to address the constraints that women face in participating in and benefiting from growth and development and working to secure their rights.
In the global context, employers are liable for sexual harassment committed by their employees during the course of their employment. However, an employer may be able to avoid liability for such acts where it can demonstrate that it took all reasonable steps to prevent it. However, a Rights of Women report has demonstrated that around 72 per cent of women experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace do not feel their employer offers enough protection and support.
One of the major challenges facing the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace is that some institutions are reluctant to admit incidents of improper behaviour, and they may manipulate evidence and witnesses or refuse to allow the victim of harassment to view investigative reports. Although, these institutions may encourage the victims to speak up, at the same time they do not grant them any sort of protection to sustain and promote their careers, thus representing severe violence against women and girls.
It is also urgent to shed light on the negative consequences that the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace bear, including injury to dignity and the loss of a job. They should be compensated for damages owing to mental anguish and for other damages including the humiliation experienced, hurt feelings, the loss of self-respect, loss of dignity, loss of self-esteem, and loss of confidence. They may also be made to feel victimised and vulnerable in an offensive work environment.
These damages come from the power abuse of the harasser, and they may exacerbate a medical condition, given the stress caused by sexual harassment and bullying and the reliance on employment. In this regard, employers have full liability for the emotional and psychological impact of sexual harassment and the general damages that result from prolonged harassment, power abuse, bullying, and persistent intimidation during employment.
Egypt has embarked on a new era of ending different forms of violence against women and girls and addressing the crime of sexual harassment. It not only prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, but also protects and promotes women and girls for leadership. The structural reform programme launched by the government in April 2020 promotes widening the scope of ethical standards to cover all companies and institutions in both the public and private sectors. In the meantime, amendments have been made to the sexual harassment law on different forms of violence against women and girls.
Law 141/2021 amended articles from the 58/1937 law to deal with sexual harassment, tightening up the penalties on those who harass others in public or private places or by making sexual insinuations whether by gesture, word, or deed. These amendments are in accordance with the Constitution, especially Article 10, which states that the family is the foundation of society and the state promotes the cohesion, stability, and consolidation of family values, as well as protecting women from all forms of violence.
The amendments extend to Article 306 bis of the law, which stipulates that if the crime is committed with the intention by the offender to obtain a sexual benefit from the victim, then this is considered sexual harassment. The perpetrator will be punished by imprisonment of no less than five years and a fine of no less than LE200,000 and not exceeding LE 300,000, or both penalties, according to the law.
Additionally, if the offender is one of those stipulated in the second paragraph of Article 267 of the law, or had occupational, family, or educational authority over the victim, or exercised any pressure on the victim, or if the crime was committed by two or more persons, at least one of them carrying a weapon, then the penalty is imprisonment for a period of no less than seven years and a fine of no less than LE300,000 and not more than LE500,000.
From the international perspective, in the UK sexual harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act of 2010, which says that all employers have a duty of care to protect their workers and will be legally liable for harassment in the workplace if they have not taken reasonable steps to prevent it. In January 2020, the UK Equalities and Human Rights Commission published guidance for employers on sexual harassment in the workplace. This included practical advice and steps that employers can take, among them developing an effective anti-harassment policy, simplifying the reporting process, applicable tools for acting quickly and fairly when a complaint is made, and protecting the rights of victims of harassment in accordance with international administrative law and international human rights law.
Last but not least, it is necessary to boost international law enforcement, especially in international/multinational institutions that have immunity privileges. This would help to achieve fairness and accountability, prohibiting any risk of conflict of interests or violating employer’s liability standards and international human rights. Proper law enforcement and surveillance would promote fair, accurate, and transparent in-depth investigative processes, preserving the human rights of the victims/complainants of harassment and countering physical sexual harassment and bullying and the abuse of authority in the workplace. This would help to overcome the negative consequences of these incidents and contribute effectively to development.
Confronting sexual harassment and accompanying acts of bullying and the abuse of power would result in ending violence against women and girls in the workplace, empowering them to build fruitful careers, attain leadership positions, contribute to economic sustainable development goals, and achieve better inclusive growth worldwide.
* The writer is a senior economist at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.