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Standing against the culture of harassment

For a nation striving for economic prosperity, harassment and exploitation of women cannot persist in the workplace

GreenWatch Desk Op-Ed 2024-05-25, 3:18pm

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"There is no chance for the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved, for nothing can be accomplished in which the wife and mother is not consulted and honoured." -- Swami Vivekananda.

Such prophetic words ring painfully true in a nation striving to unlock its economic potential. For far too many working women across Bangladesh the workplace fails to serve as a venue for empowerment and is instead a crucible of harassment, exploitation, and persistent insecurity.
According to a study by Karmojibi Nari and CARE Bangladesh, 84.7% of women workers reported having experienced verbal harassment, with 71.3% reporting mental harassment, 20% reporting physical harassment, 12.7% reporting sexual harassment, and 52% reporting physical harassment from their supervisors.
Under section 332 of the Bangladesh Labour Act, no employee of any company may act in a way that is disrespectful or insensitive to the dignity or modesty of a female worker. However, female workers still face harassment at every step of their daily lives, and sexual harassment remains a major part of it in Bangladesh, reports DT.
The High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh established guidelines on sexual harassment in BNWLA v Bangladesh and others, 14 BLC (HCD) 694, even though the Labour Act does not explicitly address the issue.
These guidelines are intended to protect and safeguard the rights of women and girls at workplaces, educational institutions, universities, and other locations as needed.
Shamima (pseudonym), a junior officer at a prestigious bank in Dhaka, knows this harsh reality all too well. "It starts with the little things," she recounts with a despondent sigh. "Inappropriate comments about my appearance from male colleagues; unwelcome physical contact; the implication that cooperation of a different kind is expected for career growth." Her voice trails off, reliving the myriad indignities she has endured to do her job.
RMG factories -- a sector employing a significant female workforce -- are without a doubt the primary engine of the formidable economic growth Bangladesh has experienced in the past few years, contributing over 80% of the country's export income. Women's tireless efforts fuel the success of the ready-made garment industry and, evidently, so too the country’s. Female workers make up some 55% of Bangladesh's 4.2 million-strong RMG workforce. Even with the majority, do they feel safe?
Patriarchy is deeply rooted in the mindset of our people. These embedded unjust notions and the ever-present toxic masculinity that they carry along, often result in women being subjected to violence or sexual harassment in their workplace.
Now, the question arises: How can such incidents of sexual harassment and gender-based violence be eliminated from the workplace and create a safer work environment for all? Let us evaluate adopting a gender-transformative approach to ensure rights at work?
Article 27 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh mentions that gender equality is a core fundamental right and essential to ensuring rights at work. Organizations can introduce gender transformative frameworks through a management process that includes introducing and embedding gender-sensitive policies in their work practices. The Bangladesh Supreme Court played a crucial role in stopping and eliminating sexual harassment, which resulted in changes to the labour law. The Supreme Court's High Court Division released guidelines on sexual harassment in 2009 for use in all public and private educational institutions and workplaces. One of the preventive measures, as directed, is regular training and information dissemination on gender equality.
Combating harassment's widespread acceptance is challenging and it requires a multi-faceted effort.
Robust and precise harassment and discrimination laws and effective reporting systems are crucial. These should include grievance procedures, whistleblower protection, and harsh discipline. Effective implementation requires sufficient training and awareness.
Leadership must explicitly and decisively commit to investigating all accusations and apply solid sanctions if they are true. Inaction only allows abuse. Physical safety can be increased by installing well-lit workplaces, CCTV monitoring, victim services, and options during commutes. Frequent anonymous workplace climate surveys, setting gender equity goals, and evaluating policies need to become a regular habit.
This vision of empowered workplaces, free from hostility, discrimination, and fear, must manifest through corporations leading the charge.
Tareq Abedin Siraji is a student of law and a freelance contributor.