Sat | Dec 3, 2016

Suffering in secret

Published:Sunday | January 11, 2015 | 12:00 AMNadine Wilson-Harris

Women hold their peace as promised anti sexual harassment law crawls through the pipeline

Promises of tough legislation to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace have done little to placate local women's-rights advocates, who argue that they have heard this many times before.

Last March, minister with responsibility for information, Senator Sandrea Falconer, announced that a draft bill dealing with the vexing issue would soon be before the Cabinet for consideration, but as the legislation slowly makes its way through the channels, several women continue to suffer in silence.

Former president of Women's Inc, Joyce Hewitt, said various women's groups have been lobbying for sexual harassment laws since the '90s; however, the closest they have come to this is the formation of a draft national policy on sexual harassment, which she believes has not been effective in dealing with the issue.

"We are really out of patience with regard to the status of sexual harassment at the workplace legislation," said Hewitt, as she pointed out that the Crisis Hotline continues to receive calls from women who fear being terminated from their jobs if they blow the whistle and bring attention to the sexual harassment by their supervisors or bosses.

"Some women are in such a state of crisis that they were chronically depressed, and there were two cases where women were suicidal because they were working at a relatively high level and felt that they had nowhere to turn as the harassment was quite extreme," Hewitt told The Sunday Gleaner.

Hewitt, who now serves on the public education committee at Women's Inc, said in some of the cases she has come across, the women were so fed up that they left their jobs eventually.

"When they go to the next job and the question is asked, why is it that you left the last job, they are reluctant to say 'I was a victim of harassment', so they would try to make up all other kinds of stories, which is detrimental to finding employment. It's a terrible, terrible thing that continues without any recourse for the victims."

In June 2000, while serving as minister with responsibility for women's affairs, Portia Simpson Miller had promised that she was going to be promoting the need for sexual-harassment policy, as gender-based violence was a priority for her government.

In her April 2014 Budget presentation, Simpson Miller, now prime minister, promised again that a gender-neutral sexual-harassment policy was going to be a priority for her government. She pointed out then that the Cabinet had approved the drafting instructions for the preparation of the legislation.

Last week, Minister of Justice Senator Mark Golding told The Sunday Gleaner that the drafting instructions had been sent to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel from about the middle last year.

"So I am waiting to get the draft bill from them."

Golding said the legislation will be modelled off the CARICOM draft sexual-harassment legislation although there will be some changes to make it more specific to Jamaica. He said it will not be limited to the workplace and will address the sexual harassment of both men and women.

According to Golding, there is a need for patience with the legislative process as it has been thoroughly put to the test in the last two years and several pieces of legislation were passed.

"The legislators are not dragging their feet. It's a question of the process of formulating and developing legislation. It's a pipeline that can only accommodate a certain volume of traffic going through it, and there has been a lot of traffic through that pipeline in the last two years, doing all sort of things," said Golding.

Given the absence of legislation, policy analyst at the Bureau of Gender Affairs, Karen Small, said the bureau has been conducting seminars within the public and private sectors to inform workers about the draft policy and to educate them more about what sexual harassment constitutes.