Orginally published in the Sunday Gleaner of December 6, 2020
By UNDP Resident Representative Denise E Antonio
Twenty seven percent of women and 4% of men polled across the world say they have experienced sexual harassment in a one-year period alone, according to a Worldwide Independent Network (WIN) study published in 2018. For too long, women and some men too, have silently suffered the indignity of sexual harassment because of an unwritten code that gives a cultural pass to offensive actions.
Unwanted catcalls, touches, crude and degrading statements, taking advantage of unequal power dynamics foster unsafe and toxic environments resulting in unhappy and unhealthy people. Sexual Harassment is an assault on the dignity, productivity and career prospects of both women and men. It imposes a personal, professional and mental cost on victims and a reputational and productive cost on organizations. I will go further to even say that Sexual Harassment is on the spectrum of gender-based violence, one that expresses verbal, non-verbal and physical aggression towards its intended victims, leaving behind battle scars associated with violence.
Research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh in 2018 confirms that women who experienced sexual harassment had almost a 3 times higher risk of developing depressive symptoms. They also experienced debilitating stress reactions, sleep disorders, high blood pressure, and lowered self-esteem, and nausea.
A human rights, health and productivity issue
Sexual Harassment is not just a human rights issue. It touches on wellbeing, health and productivity. We must tackle it decisively. That is why the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Multi Country Office in Jamaica is proud to be a part of the team of United Nations agencies in Jamaica partnering with government and civil society to implement the European Union-funded Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations to eliminate all forms of violence against all with particular focus on women and girls. Under the leadership of the government we intend to support and advocate for strengthening relevant legislations that safeguards all from acts of violence.
Government’s enabling actions with respect to the draft Sexual Harassment Act, currently before the Joint Select Committee of Parliament, is a bold step in the right direction. We heartily commend their unwavering commitment and urge us all to remain invested in ensuring Jamaica passes the best possible fit for purpose legislation that is responsive and accessible to victims.
Once this law is passed, Jamaica will join the company of about 140 countries to date which have laws on sexual harassment, according to the Women, Business and the Law 2020 publication. But ending the trauma of sexual harassment does not end with the passage of the law. We must engage in a continuous process of public education and advocacy to inform people of their rights and to inform them about the institutional arrangements designed to investigate and adjudicate on cases of sexual harassment.
Jamaica can also strengthen its bold legislative step by ratifying the Violence and Harassment Convention 2019, applicable to places of work. The tone of Article 4 is instructive as it obliges nations to adopt "an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach for the prevention and elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work”. Notably, Jamaica’s draft Act contains provisions that are largely in step with the provisions of Article 4, with the Jamaica law being applied more widely than the convention to also include schools, colleges, universities, places of safety, nursing homes and correctional institutions.
Insights from UNDP's Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Abuse of Authority
Recognizing the serious nature of sexual harassment and its impact on the workforce, UNDP has developed a worker-centric and centred Policy on Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Discrimination, and Abuse of Authority that is compliant with the principles of the Violence and Harassment Convention 2019. Some of the key takeaways in the UNDP policy are as follows:
- One, there is mandatory requirement for country offices to promulgate the policy and to report on this progress. This means all country offices are required to formulate work plans to foster a safe and harmonious environment free from harassment, sexual harassment, abuse and any form of prohibited conduct and to educate staff and partners about its provisions. To this end, the country office has developed its own comprehensive work plan and is currently in the process of conducting an internal campaign targeting staff and partners.
- Two, the policy adopts a rights-based approach with the wellbeing of team members taking primacy. UNDP's holistic approach is designed to create and maintain a working environment that respects the inherent dignity of all persons, affording them the opportunity to reach their fullest potential and empowering them to deliver the best possible results for UNDP and the people we serve.
- Three, the serious nature of the offence is emphasized. There is no tolerance for harassment, sexual harassment in any form and is regarded as “prohibited conduct” and personnel exhibiting such behaviour or conduct may be subject to administrative, disciplinary or contractual measures, up to and including dismissal, as appropriate.
- Four, complainants and whistleblowers are afforded significant protections. Retaliation against a complainant is prohibited conduct. Complainants are protected at UNDP and can officially file for Protection Against Retaliation if they feel they have been threatened during the course of an investigation. Anyone who retaliates against whistleblowers will face sanctions up to dismissal.
- Five, the sanctity of the investigative process is protected. The investigation is assigned to a special office at headquarters. Persons with a complaint have the right to either enter into a dispute resolution process or to skip this altogether and initiate the formal complaint process.
- Six, there is frank and open access to resources and complaint mechanisms including a 24-hour hotline to clarify issues and to officially file their complaints without the knowledge or say so of the field office.
- Seven - Accountability is strong: The policy holds managers accountable for taking the prescribed steps to handle complaints that may come to their attention.
The UNDP Multi Country Office in Jamaica welcomes the opportunity to share further insights from our policy with interested organizations. Let us keep the exchanges flowing. We must seize the opportunity not only during this period of the global commemoration of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, but 365 days to let our voices be heard, and more importantly, to be strategic and thoughtful. Through the Spotlight Initiative we hope you will count on us as your partner in this journey.
Denise E Antonio is the United Nations Development Programme Resident Representative for Jamaica, Belize, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. Follow her on Twitter at @Antonio67Denise