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Jamaicans urged to grab hold of sexual harassment debate

Published:Sunday | December 22, 2019 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju/Gleaner Writer
Dr Denise Chevannes-Vogel

Jamaicans have until tomorrow to submit their recommendations on the 2019 Sexual Harassment Act which is up for review by a joint select committee of parliament.

Dr Denise Chevannes-Vogel, national private sector specialist for the United Nations’ Win-Win Programme, wants persons and organisations to contribute their thoughts to what will be a groundbreaking piece of legislation.

Though not supported by official statistics, Chevannes-Vogel said sexual harassment is a widespread workplace plague affecting both women and me.

“Sexual harassment in Jamaica is very real. Sexual harassment is any unwanted, unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature and it happens everywhere, it is pervasive in Jamaica. It is in the streets, in the work place - private and public sector - and although the majority of the victims are women, men too can be sexually harassed,” she told The Sunday Gleaner.

“Sexual harassment can also cross all kinds of other intersectionalities - race, class, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. The important thing to recall is that it is unwanted and unwelcome.”

Local trade unions are supporting Chevannes-Vogel’s view that it is a widespread practice.

UN Women, with the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the European Union (EU), earlier this month hosted a media sensitisation forum on the prevention of sexual harassment in the private sector workplace in Jamaica.

“There is no question that we have reached the stage of our development where we shouldn’t be having our young folks, I’m talking about male and female because the thing has gotten so bad in certain quarters that is not only sexual harassment against females. We have had reports about young men having problems,” said Vincent Morrison, president of the Union of Clerical Administrative and Supervisory Employees, one of the trade unions represented at the forum.

The trade unions, along with the Jamaica Association of Local Government Officers and the Jamaica Employers Federation said they were in full support of legislation to address what Dr Chevannes-Vogel described as “humiliating, offensive, threatening, hostile, unwelcome and unwanted behaviour”.

Employers will need to be especially vigilant since, when the sexual harassment bill does become law it will be incumbent on them to put in place policy statements on the issue, ensuring that employees are fully aware of these documents and the steps that will be taken to mitigate as well as to redress any issues of sexual harassment. A tribunal will also be established to address matters that are not resolved at the local level.

Morrison said it was important to ensure that victims and complainants know they will be protected.

“The law must have protection, so that having made a report there mustn’t be any ifs and buts that I may end up being victimised or otherwise disadvantaged,” he insisted.

For Helene Davis Whyte, president of the Jamaica Confederation of Trade Unions, a major concern is that, by the time the bill becomes law it could be outdated and out of touch with the realities it was designed to address.

She noted that local unions have been involved with the issue since the early 1990s and the adoption of Convention 190 by the ILO, which speaks to violence and harassment in the world of work and was adopted this year, could be more far-reaching than the legislation which is yet to become law.

“Our suggestion at the last labour advisory council sitting is that the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Gender Affairs need to come together to ensure that a review is done to determine if and when aspects of the proposed legislation has to be amended to take into account the features of the convention and the recommendation which were adopted at the ILO this year,” she said.

“Although it may be delaying the process a bit, we believe it is best to proceed carefully.”



...Union leader all for bill, but warns legislators to take it easy on barring ‘compliments’

While fully supporting the establishment of legislation he said he believes is long overdue, Vincent Morrison, president of the Union of Clerical Administrative and Supervisory Employees, is warning local authorities to guard against making the local law as aggressive as the American version.

“One of the things that we have to understand is the culture and how we operate as a people. The fact that you see a young lady walking down the road and you say ‘hi’ to her, ‘you’re looking lovely’, that to me ought to be a compliment and we have to be very careful because if we are going to take the US arrangement in place then we may have to build more jails”.

On that note, Dr Denise Chevannes-Vogel, national private sector specialist for the United Nations’ Win-Win Programme, stressed that the emerging era is going to force people to stop and think twice about their actions since it is no longer culturally acceptable for a man to hit a woman on the buttocks, brush against her breasts in passing, or even to lick his lips suggestively while mouthing sexual entreaties.

She noted that a woman dressed in revealing clothes does not give a man the right to presume that her body is his for the taking, since a woman should have the right to dress in the way she wants and be assured that her bodily integrity will be respected.

This she however noted is not a call to arms for men stop being complimentary to the opposite sex but to be aware that they should be guided in their comments in extending to other women the courtesies they would to their own family members.

“How would you compliment your mother or your sister? You say, ‘What a lovely dress, beautiful colour but you would not say ‘You look hot’, you would not say ‘That dress follows your curves the way I would like to…’,” she said.

“You can admire someone, you can say ‘You look lovely, today’, ‘What a beautiful shirt’ without implying that there is any kind of sexual interest.”