Amanda Quest | Prioritise Sex Harassment Bill
Since the tabling of the Sexual Harassment Bill by then Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller almost three years ago, it appears to have fallen far off the legislative agenda. Whatever the reasons for the protracted delay in the retabling and passage of the Sexual Harassment Bill, such a state of affairs is deeply disappointing as it betrays a shocking indifference to the gravity of an issue that has, for far too long, plagued the Jamaican society.
In recent times - and perhaps emboldened by the force of local, regional, and international activist movements against sexual violence - scores of women have courageously shared their experiences with sexual harassment in employment and other contexts. They have told of being propositioned for sexual favours or of having humiliating sexual overtures made to them by superiors and co-workers alike, which had disastrous effects on their self-esteem, productivity, and sense of security.
Unsurprisingly, many chose not to complain about these incidents for fear of being professionally sabotaged, blacklisted, or otherwise penalised for doing so, especially in circumstances where, as was oftentimes the case, their harasser(s) wielded considerable power and influence. Eventually, their productivity, health, and overall well-being would become so seriously compromised by the interminable harassment they experienced that they felt compelled to leave their jobs.
Ubiquity of sexual harassment
Notwithstanding the indisputable ubiquity of sexual harassment within the society, Jamaica has yet to enact comprehensive legislation to address it. In 1997, the CARICOM Secretariat drafted 'model' legislation on sexual harassment, which was to guide member states in the drafting and implementation of their own legislation. To date, however, only five member states have taken some legislative action to treat with the issue.
CARICOM member states such as Guyana and St Lucia, for example, have sought to address the issue through anti-discrimination legislation; Belize and Barbados through standalone legislation; and The Bahamas through sexual offences legislation.
Jamaica, therefore, lags considerably far behind its regional counterparts having failed - despite numerous undertakings successive governments for about a decade now - to take any legislative action to tackle the issue.
Human Rights Implications
In conventional discourses on sexual harassment, it has generally been conceptualised as a health-labour issue owing largely to its pernicious effects on the health, safety, and productivity of its victims (who are predominantly women). Seldom has sexual harassment been framed, within this context, as a human-rights issue even though it seriously undermines a victim's dignity, bodily integrity, and fundamental human rights.
International and regional human-rights instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Violence against Women (CEDAW) and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belem Do Para Convention) recognise sexual harassment as both a form of discrimination and gender-based violence against women, which constrains their enjoyment of a number of guaranteed fundamental human rights. These include, among others, the right to life, health, equality, just and favourable conditions of work and security.
But quite apart from that, sexual harassment also acts as an impediment to the realisation of substantive equality between men and women at work. On this point, the CEDAW Committee, which monitors the implementation of CEDAW, has observed that gender equality in employment can be subverted when women are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-specific violence.
By ratifying CEDAW and the Belem Do Para Convention - in 1984 and 2005, respectively - Jamaica has committed to eliminating all forms of gender-based violence and discrimination against women. It is, therefore, obliged to take the necessary legislative and other measures to eradicate the scourge of sexual harassment, which persists unabated within the society.
Accordingly, prioritising and promulgating the Sexual Harassment Bill will not only see Jamaica acting in compliance with its regional and international human rights obligations, but will also compellingly communicate the seriousness of the issue, provide effective remedies for victims of sexual harassment, and critically delineate - through a holistic and nuanced definition of the proscribed conduct - what is appropriate behaviour and what is not in employment and other contexts.
Equally as important, for the first time ever, the experiences of victims of sexual harassment - who have long been made to suffer this indignity in silence - would now be legally recognised and validated, thereby empowering them to more readily report incidents of sexual harassment and seek redress for the damage or harm caused.
While prioritising and passing the Sexual Harassment Bill will not be a panacea, it will be a progressive and long-overdue step towards ensuring that the human rights of all persons, especially those who are most vulnerable, are effectively safeguarded in the workplace and beyond.