Sri Lanka, No to sexual harassment

Sri Lankan companies are signing up for a ‘Code of Conduct’ against sexual harassment at work. Last week, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the Employers Federation of Ceylon (EFC) launched a Code of Conduct, and procedures to address sexual harassment at work. The code was developed with help from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and already 42 companies have signed up. The EFC says more companies are expected to join. Dilshani Samaraweera, journalist of Sri Lanka Sunday Times, reports.

Saying ‘No’

Sexual harassment, despite Sri Lanka’s conservative Buddhist culture, is so common on roads, busses and public places, it is often accepted as the norm. However, reporting of such instances is next to none. Women are afraid of revenge attacks and also the social stigma where women are blamed for the harassment instead of the harasser. As a result, there is no comprehensive data on the degree of sexual harassment at work or outside. But, in some parts of the country, it is so bad, it discourages women from working.

In March last year, women activists and women workers at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) took to the roads in a protest march against sexual harassment on the roads. Workers said harassment targeting women on the way to work was so bad, it actually discouraged women from going to work. “Men grope and snatch girls walking on the roads. Others stand in the shadows on the roads, at bus stands, near the station, making filthy remarks and exposing themselves,” said Chamila Thushari, from Da Bindu, a women’s rights group at the FTZ. However, the EFC says local employers are now beginning to recognise and take disciplinary measures against sexual harassment at work, if not outside.

“Reports of sexual harassment are still rare, but recently, for the first time, there have been two or three cases where persons engaged in harassment have actually been dismissed after a hearing,” said the Director General of the EFC, Ravi Peiris.The new Code of Conduct and procedures sets out what companies should do to prevent sexual harassment at work and also how companies should deal with such incidents. Companies adopting the code must create awareness about sexual harassment among employees and must also to set up mechanisms to handle complaints.

Harassed at work
Sexual harassment is generally defined as conduct that is unwelcome, unsolicited and offensive to the recipient.
“Sexual harassment is difficult to define because it is so subjective. It is what the victim feels and not what the perpetrator intended. The keyword is that it is unwelcome, and it can be a single incident or a pattern of behaviour,” said Shyamala Gomez, a lawyer and an adviser on gender to the UN Resident Coordinator’s office, speaking at the launch of the Code of Conduct at the Ceylon Chamber.

Generally, because of the cultural factors defining the social power balance, it is women that are at the receiving end of sexual harassment in Sri Lanka. But at work, even men can be sexually harassed by other men or even women, through sexually suggestive actions that are ‘unwelcome.’ The experts say working persons can be sexually harassed at the place of work in many ways. It can be in the form of unwelcome visual displays, where a person is shown sexually suggestive pictures or even screen savers and emails. It can be in the form of phone calls, gossip, slander or lewd comments, or unwelcome touching and groping.

Laws in abundance
The experts say, Sri Lankan women are not powerless against sexual harassment before the law. In fact, there are a whole string of laws in the country that can be used against sexual harassment, including the criminal law. “There is room for action against sexual harassment under Constitutional provisions and a number of laws including the criminal law of Sri Lanka, the anti-ragging law, labour law and the bribery law. There is also the Women’s Charter, which is not a law but can be used to argue that the state has an obligation to prevent violence against women,” said Gomez.

For workers in the public sector, Sri Lanka’s Constitution provides protection against sexual harassment through the provisions for equality and non-discrimination and the right to engage in a lawful occupation of choice. Even the clause against torture could be used against sexual harassment. Sri Lanka’s is also the only country in South Asia that has a criminal law specifically recognising sexual harassment as a crime. Convicted under criminal law, offenders face a five year prison term, or a fine, or both.

“In the South Asian region no other country has a criminal law on sexual harassment. The law applies to the work place, buses and education institutes and the private as well as public sector,” said Gomez. The labour laws can be used to fight sexual harassment through the constructive termination clause that allows workers to go to the labour tribunals if forced to leave employment due to sexual harassment. There is also room for action under the Bribery Act.

In addition, Sri Lanka is a signatory to the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the ILO Convention 111 on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation). The legal system even provides protection against sexual harassment at educational institutes through the Anti-Ragging Act. The big challenge howeuer, is in convincing people to use these laws. (The Sunday Times)

An exploratory study on Sexual harassment at work place (a Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung study)

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