Letter of the Day | 22 years of cowardice - sex harassment law in limbo
THE EDITOR, Sir:
'Sandy's sorrow', published in The Sunday Gleaner of May 6, 2018, reminds us that our country is decades behind in addressing the problem of sexual harassment, which can turn into sexual assault.
It has now been 22 years since CARICOM drafted its Model Sexual Harassment Bill in 1996 for consideration by member states, but Jamaica still has no legislation.
Five other Caribbean countries (Bahamas, Belize, Guyana, St Lucia and Trinidad & Tobago) now address sexual harassment as a legal issue - in a standalone law or anti-discrimination legislation, or in their laws on sexual offences. It's a disgrace that the Jamaican Parliament cannot get its act together (pun intended). Of course, there have been many promises.
More than a decade ago, citizens' concerns about pervasive sexual harassment were revealed during a two-year project exploring the extent of the problem. The project was conducted across Jamaica, in the public sector and civil society, by Women's Media Watch (now WMW Jamaica) and the Bureau of Gender Affairs.
The participatory research found that citizens wanted legislation - they felt that policy guidelines were not enough. When the findings were presented at an event attended by policymakers, the relevant ministers of government promised to attend to sexual harassment legislation as a matter of urgency. Since then, both administrations have made such promises at various times - to no avail.
The culture of silence around sexual abuse often allows abusers to escape punishment. The silence may be exacerbated by victims' fear of reprisal, feelings of shame, or knowledge that justice will not be served anyway. 'Sandy's sorrow' highlighted the plight of persons who are so fearful of the consequences of speaking out that they suffer in silence until the poisonous environment is so unbearable they leave the job they need- and have a right to keep.
Sexual harassers often abuse their positions of power to belittle, intimidate and threaten their victims, who fear losing their job or their living space or their (university) course grades if they speak out. Sexual harassers have no respect for another person's body or sexual integrity. Neither do rapists.
Sexual harassment violates a person's dignity, tears to shreds their self-esteem, and can have long-term traumatising effects. The impact is not only on the victim's life, but on workplaces, families - and the society, in terms of cost for mental-health care, loss of productivity, and more.
There is a continuum of sexual violence, and we need, as a society, to state unequivocally that NO form of sexual abuse is acceptable. Sexual harassment legislation is long overdue.