January 22, 2024 In Legal Support

The problem women face every day-Sexual Harassment at workplace

It is incredibly hard for women to do their jobs when they are evaluated and judged at every step of their way. A legitimate reason for leaving early or taking a day off is made out to be an excuse. One wrong outfit leaves them forever labelled; a brief conversation with a male cohort renders them different kinds of names. Women are slut-shamed constantly not only at their work-places, but everywhere. They remain in constant fear that their one wrong step could ruin every effort they put forth. Male co-workers constantly make vulgar or sexual remarks about their female co-workers, sometimes by openly talking about them or by joking around. As per the reports of World Health Organizations, 1 in 3 women go through physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes.  Millions of women across the world are subjected to sexual harassment at their work-places, but the majority of these occurrences go unreported. Few employees have the courage to speak up against their employers, and when they do, it is often unheard and ignored. It is either dismissed by firing the victims or by threatening them. Rarely actions are taken, and frequently the accused go free.

Very few countries in the world have laws against harassment at workplaces even though thousands of such incidents are reported. Further, the countries that have legislations to prevent sexual harassment at work are either weak or ineffective.  There is no specific law in Bangladesh that incriminates sexual harassment at workplace. In 2009, the Apex court, in Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNWLA) vs Government of Bangladesh and Others, recognized the problem of sexual harassment at workplaces along with educational institutions; and addressed the requirement of dealing with such issues, and since Bangladesh is a part of Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),  the court took its provisions into their account and stated that it is obligatory for Bangladesh to enact laws that specifically deals with sexual harassment at work and educational institutions. However, no such laws have still been enacted, but in 2018, formalising the 2009 guidelines, a draft law namely Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act 2018 was jointly submitted to the Law Ministry by BNWLA with eight other organizations, which in result formulated a statutory obligation on all organizations to have Sexual Harassment Complaint Committees. Moreover, in June 2019, leaders around the world at the International Labour Conference approved a convention called, “Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work”, which became effective on 25 June 2021. It was initiated so that the problems regarding violence and harassment at workplaces against women can be dealt with. Many delegates from various sectors of Bangladesh endorsed the convention, which deals with gender-based harassment as well as economic, sexual, psychological, and bodily harm. Not only this, the convention also provides the required pre-emptive measures to eliminate violence and harassment, and safeguard women at workplaces.

Often, it becomes excruciatingly difficult for women to even reach at their work-place or anywhere as they are repeatedly harassed and sexually-assaulted. No woman is safe anywhere anymore as stated by Maleka, general secretary of Bangladesh Mohila Parishad, “Girls are not safe anywhere. They are considered a commodity and always face violence.”  Sometimes just reaching to their destination becomes the most terrifying part of their day, especially when they need to use public-transports like buses. Often women are harassed and touched indecently in buses or shared public transports. Even while riding in a rickshaw a person cannot be at peace; bystanders take every opportunity to make crude or inappropriate sexual remarks.

Let alone this, women are not even safe at their own homes. One of the most common offenses in Bangladesh is domestic abuse and harassment. No matter where they go or who they are with, women are primarily concerned about their safety. Violence and abuse take many distinct forms. This issue is becoming worse day-by-day, ranging from sexual and physical assault to emotional and psychological abuse. Millions of women are enduring various kinds of abuse, whether the abuser is her own husband, brother, father, or a complete stranger.

Yes, it is the harsh reality. Mostly women have been violated by their own intimate partner. In Bangladesh, marital rape is a widespread problem. Previously, it was not even acknowledged until the UK case of R v. R [1991]. Although marital rape is unlawful in UK, Bangladesh still did not criminalize the act of marital rape and there are no laws to prevent it. Marriage does not give anyone the license to violate one’s body against their will. Numerous women are raped almost every day by their spouses in the name of consensual intercourse, and these women have no legal protections to hide behind.

Not only that, nowadays, neither a sister is safe with her own brother nor a daughter is safe with her own father. Domestic violence has taken its worst gruesome form now that a father has come down to violate his own daughter instead of protecting her from this brutal world. Especially, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of sexual violence and rape hiked up in Bangladesh along with some other countries as the male members of the families were unable to control their revolting inclinations towards their own spouses, sisters or even their daughters in this time of stress.

Unfortunately, the silent victims of these assaults are typically rural women who are unaware of their rights. Since they have consistently received poor treatment, they do not know how to raise their voice. Even women who are acutely aware of their rights occasionally refrain from speaking up or taking action because of fear or societal expectations. Considering the daily increase in the number of rape cases, it is high time for a change. If the victims do not raise their voice, the abusers will continue to commit these heinous crimes: the victim may either be an adult woman, or an infant who has not even learned to talk yet.

Speaking up against the abuser and the crime committed is the first step towards reducing this horrendous crime; raising awareness is equally vital. Social Movement like #MeToo could serve as a starting point in eradicate and ostracizing these atrocious monsters from the society. Definitely, the laws of the country should be enacted and amended as per the country and its citizens’ needs. There are laws like section.354 and section.509 under Penal Code of 1860 to prevent sexual harassment against women. There is the supplementary Supreme Court guideline in the case of BNWLA v Government of Bangladesh (2011) along with the ruling of 2009 which also addresses the issues regarding sexual violence against women. Additionally, there is the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000 (Nari-O-Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain, 2000) which deals with indecent assault against women and children. However, the same legislation namely Penal Code, 1860 which was enacted to prevent women from sexual violence, is also the same law which allows marital rape. While Provision 375 of the Bangladesh Penal Code, 1860 recognizes that engaging in sexual activity without the assent of the victim constitutes rape, the same article exempts marital rape if the wife is over the age of 13. It is not that there are no laws for the women preventing sexual offences, but there ought to be more specific legislations addressing the pressing issues like marital rape.

Every individual and the government must work together to make the country a secure environment for women to live in. At all times, whether on the road, at night, at home, and at work, safety should be a priority. Laws must be put in place to safeguard the women in our nation; more legislation must be enacted and put into effect, and women working in these fields must be trained to think in accordance with the necessity of doing so. To guarantee that everyone takes them seriously, they must also be implemented appropriately. More severe penalties must be imposed on anyone who abuse women in any way.

Barrister Sabrina Zarin

Senior Partner, Equity LLP

Leave a Reply