WE-CHANGE’S Submission to the Joint Select Committee on the matter of the Sexual Harassment Act.

Madam Chair, members of this Committee, fellow presenters and onlookers, good afternoon. We are here today representing Women’s Empowerment for Change (WE -Change) which is a women-led, women’s rights organization committed to increasing the participation of lesbian, bisexual, queer and ally women in social justice advocacy. Our advocacy, actions and projects are aimed at bringing attention to societal issues that impact the quality of life of all  women across Jamaica as well as educating women on their fundamental rights and equipping them with the tools and information needed to advocate within their own spaces. 

If we may, we would like to present to this house a few short stories before we commence with our recommendations. 

“I remember one morning, walking along the sidewalk in Half Way Tree (St Andrew), minding my own business when a man riding on a bicycle reached out his hand and grabbed my breast then rode off.” 

“I was walking towards Half Way Tree from work. Several men were calling me but I ignored them and proceeded on my route. They caught up with me, one said hello, I ignored him and continued on. A couple minutes later, I had turned off the route I looked around and noticed they were driving slowly a few cars behind me. One man shouted, “you feel wi doe, yuh know seh we deh here”. I made another turn and they turned as well, commenting that “if yuh did ansa we, we woulda gi u a ride”. I quickly picked up the pace towards Winchester Road and turned onto the next road before I was able to lose them. I was terrified, completely terrified.”

Beyond the Headlines (BTHPsst) produced a docu-series on catcalling in Jamaica in 2019. Here are a few tweets shared online:

  • #BTHPsst #BTHCatcalling driving home at 2am and got pulled over by police. As I handed him my licence he grabs my hand and starts feeling it up talking bout how my hands don’t look like I do housework and asking for my number.
  • #BTHPsst #BTHCatcalling walking with my uncle past Pablo’s in my school uniform and a man grabbed my arm and tried pulling me towards him with the usual “wah gwan babes.” I was 13 
  • I was dressed in a hoodie and pants walking through Mandeville and the male vendors kept calling me “sadamite.” When I was at UWI my wardrobe was fitted caps, t-shirts, sweats and sneakers and I got abused by taxi men every day.

Anecdotal as these stories are, due to the absence of research and data on street harassment in Jamaica or the wider Caribbean, they reflect a shared experience that most, if not all, Jamaican women endure as an unwarranted and undesired rite of passage from the first sign of puberty. In one of the largest studies ever conducted on street harassment, Cornell University and Hollaback International discovered that the majority of women across the world are street harassed before the age of 17 – for a bit of specificity, 95% of women in Argentina and 81.7% of European women. Can you imagine the local statistics?

The onus to address Sexual Harassment has always fallen on women. The narrative surrounding the issue is deeply entrenched in Jamaica’s Rape Culture which facilitates the harassment of women without legal reprimand. When these issues are brought to the forefront of conversations we are met with the assumption that women are their own harbingers of harassment. We allude to her dress, question her presence in the location and require her to explain how she could allow this to happen. In order to adequately serve women, who are equal citizens, we are in dire need of legislation which will then inform policies that protect women across different spheres. 

Here are our proposed amendments and recommendations:

RECOMMENDATION 1 : INCLUSION OF STREET HARASSMENT IN THE ACT

Our current sexual harassment act pays heavy attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. While necessary, our Act must also reflect the cultural context in which it operates and subsequently provide the requisite protection, and guidance on how to enact a needed shift in this society’s paradigm of the treatment of women. WE-Change, therefore, echoes the sentiments of our colleagues at last week’s hearing to include “street harassment” in this legislation’s definition of sexual harassment, where “street” is an umbrella term for public spaces – transportations/stores/roadways. The Act in its current state elucidates the inappropriateness of sexual harassment within the confines of a workplace and institutions, the process and mechanisms for seeking redress and  the duty-bearers with responsibility to respond to offences. But what of our lives outside of these particular confines? As illustrated in the anecdotes at the start of this presentation, sexual harassment for a majority of Jamaican women is prevalent in public spaces. There remains a void in the legislation that allows for accountability within these spaces, which inevitably ignores the scores of people who are victims of sexual harassment who exist outside of the parameters defined by law. WE understand the difficulty in creating legislation that addresses every possible instance of harassment. However, as legislators, you must strive to design an Act that is comprehensive and in keeping with the realities of those it seeks to govern.  

Further south, the Chilean government in 2019 passed a law that has made “street sexual harassment” a punishable crime with fines and prison terms after recognizing its impact on the lives of women and girls – based on research provided by the Observatory Against Harassment in Chile (2015). On the same continent, Peru recently reformed their sexual harassment legislation by first recognizing sexual harassment as a form of violence, expanding its definition to include behaviours of a sexist nature as well as criminalises “groping and physical contact” in public spaces once done through threat or violence. Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2016 moved to criminalise catcalling with a fine of $1000 pesos. Their law reform has outlawed “direct or indirect comments referring to a person’s body” and “non-consensual physical contact, indecent exposure, public masturbation and pursuing and cornering” and will embark on public education campaigns to sensitise the public on sexual harassment’s dangerous impact. On that note, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in 2019 initiated a public education campaign in Trinidad and Tobago aimed at exposing street harassment as a form of violence against women in the hopes of reducing its prevalence. WE recommend that this committee look to the above mentioned countries for guidance on how to specifically outlaw and criminalise street harassment.

RECOMMENDATION 2: The Act must explicitly state how to treat with harassment by a ‘third party’. A ‘third party’ can be persons who interact with institutions and businesses such as vendors, clients, and business partners. 

In an increasingly digital world where freelancers are becoming a part of the labour force and non-traditional and working set-ups (such as cafes, videoconferencing and other digital means of communicating) and dynamics are being created, our legislation has to graduate to accompany this rapid change. Additionally, while we are cognizant of the Cybercrimes Act of 2015 and its stipulations, that Act does not make specific references to harassment and further, cyberharassment in a working relationship. Can the committee provide clarification on whether section 2, definition of “worker” subsection C covers this kind of work arrangement – short term worker or consultants? If not, how will the law treat with these kinds of work dynamics?

We need to consider sexual harassment outside of the colleagues/supervisor relationship that the present Act mentions. Employees will have to work closely with clients, customers and partners in and outside the ‘physical’ workplace. A Workplace Sexual Harassment Policy should reflect this and should make sure the reporting channels are known by all staff members. Having regular sexual harassment training with staff members and HR personnels will reassure employees that they should feel comfortable making a complaint about harassment by a third party. Employers can also disseminate the information periodically via their internal communications channel. Statements about not tolerating abuse and harassment of staff should be visibly displayed, using clear language, so third-parties can understand what action the employer will take if they breach it.  

We urge this Committee to move swiftly to include a definition in Section 2 that clearly states who may be classified as a “harasser”. This definition would include third parties. One such definition used by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says “the harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer”. 

SHANTAE: RECOMMENDATION 3: The state must design a sexual harassment workplace policy guide or template and mandate that all businesses and institutions utilise this guide to design their policies.

A major issue that has prevented adequate redress for sexual harassment and its eventual elimination in the workplace is understanding what behaviours constitute harassment within the workplace and as such, businesses should be mandated by the government to have a policy in place for workers to reference. The International Labour Organization has sample sexual harassment policies and several “Code of Conduct and Guidelines to Prevent and Address Sexual Harassment in the workplace” that can be enlisted to aid in the creation of a template. While these guides are country specific, the content of the guides can be easily translated to the Jamaican context. It is necessary that the government leads the charge in what a comprehensive sexual harassment policy for the workplace looks like as it will ensure that these policies are harmonious across the board and align with the existing legislation.

In his research “Sexual Harassment and Sexual Harassment Policy in Jamaica: The Absence of a National Sexual Harassment Policy, and the Way Forward”, Paul Bourne found several themes, two of which  spoke to the role of culture on policy, and perception of harassment. The research highlighted that due to the lack of a clear definition of harassment, there is difficulty in implementing frameworks that address the issue. The study also highlighted that in Jamaica’s social context, sexual harassment is difficult to identify because of societal attitute towards women and women’s bodies. In its summary the research postulates that policy surrounding sexual harassment are not effective as a deterrent but rather serve as a back up in the eventuality that sexual harassment occurs. 

In an aim to address Sexual Harassment, The Equal Opportunity Commission of Trinidad and Tobago, created the Guidelines on Sexual Harassment in the workplace publication  in 2018, which serves as a guidebook for employers. The publication dedicates an entire section to mechanisms to prevent sexual harassment and mechanisms that respond to cases of sexual harassment which includes:- grievance procedures, procedures to solve complaints, disciplinary action and protective and remedial action. This publication promotes the use of mechanisms such as communication, training, education, commitment,  and dissemination of information, as the means to introducing and enforcing sexual harassment within the workplace. 

RECOMMENDATION 4:  Consider the inclusion of a section that speaks to stalking with an online sexual harassment component, that complements but is separate from the Cybercrimes Act, 2015. 

Stalking has become more widespread in our culture and many Jamaicans don’t know what to do in the event they are being stalked. Eg One woman on a popular social media site detailed being stalked by a man. When she went to the authorities they expressed that they 

We urge the committee to include a section in the Sexual Harassment Act that defines stalking and outline actions to be taken if one believes they are being stalked. 

Additionally, WE suggest that there also be included in the bill, a category that speaks to cyber/online harassment. According to an EU Wide Survey examining Violence Against Women, 11 % of women have received unwanted, offensive sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or offending, inappropriate advances on social networking sites (referring to experiences since the age of 15). 

In Section (2) of the Act, while there is mention of a statement being made orally or in writing, there needs to be explicit references which identify the use of technology as a medium for sending unrequested pornographic, sexually suggestive or unwanted lewd material whether graphic or written. The European Institute for Gender Equality establishes that one in ten women have already experienced a form of cyber violence since the age of 15. In their assessment, cyber harassment can take many forms, including but not limited to:

  • Unwanted sexually explicit emails, text (or online) messages;
  • Inappropriate or offensive advances on social networking websites or internet chat rooms;
  • Threats of physical and/or sexual violence by email, text (or online) messages;
  • Hate speech, meaning language that denigrates, insults, threatens or targets an individual based on her identity (gender) and other traits (such as sexual orientation or disability).

Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects personal information that individuals justifiably expect not to be published without their consent. Legislation needs to represent the reality of this social landscape and by including in our legal framework laws that consider online presence and use of online spaces and electronic communication, we provide protection across a myriad of spaces. 

CONCLUSION

It is time that Jamaica upgrades its current legislation to reflect the changing realities of its society. WE urge this Committee to include robust data collection after the Act is passed to determine the prevalence and nature of sexual harassment in an effort to evaluate the measures presented and an action plan to respond to the findings. Let’s hold successive governments accountable to ensure the Act serves the people. Your responsibility as legislators, which you are acknowledging by being here today, is to respond to the needs of your population, the people you promise to serve . Sexual Harassment in Jamaica is as common as ‘the cold’. This does not mean we accept it as inevitable. This does not mean that we cannot engage in action to create deliberate cultural change. This does not mean that women have to learn to navigate a culture that is toxic and which forces them to navigate their daily lives in fear. We must ensure we are taking precautions to remove this stain from our culture if we intend to follow through on our 2030 Vision of making Jamaica “the place of choice to live, work and raise families”. 

I encourage you to  not be a House with only beautiful speaking but let our actions walk before us. 

WE thank you. 

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Written by WE-Change

WE-Change is a community-based organisation committed to increasing the participation of women in social justice advocacy in Jamaica and the Caribbean. WE-Change was launched on May 15, 2015 out of a need to address and respond to the 'invisibilisation' of lesbians, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women in the LGBTQ rights movement in Jamaica. The organisation is women-led, women-focused and intersectional in its approach to advocacy, and guided by the outcomes of the Beijing 1995 Platform for Action.

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