#Metoo highlights urgent need to tackle sexual harassment

In the report Harassment on the basis of Gender and Sexual Harassment (2014), national equality bodies flag the need to build a culture of rights to ensure that the rights we have on paper according to EU and national law become a reality on the ground.

“#MeToo has brought real awareness around the enormous scale of the problem of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for many of us working in the field of equality and non-discrimination,” says Anne Gaspard, Equinet Executive Director, speaking on the BBC’s GMT show this week.

National equality bodies across Europe acting as first points of contact for victims of discrimination have known about and made efforts to tackle the endemic problem of sexual harassment for years. The learning from this has been the need to tackle underreporting by building trust and reaching out to victims, as well as strengthening existing complaint mechanisms both in the workplace and at the national levels. Sexual harassment is not limited to the workplace context, but occurs in a range of other settings, including our schools and online. “We need to empower people to claim their rights,” Anne Gaspard reminds, “and part of that is making sure that victims are protected no matter where sexual harassment occurs, and that they know where to turn for help.”

Anne Gaspard, speaking on the BBC's GMT
Anne Gaspard, speaking on the BBC’s GMT
But the experience of national equality bodies shows that reacting once sexual harassment has occurred is not enough. “Sexual harassment is now getting the media and political attention it deserves,” says Anne Gaspard, but reminds that a proactive approach is needed if we are to make progress. Practical guidance to employers is available in most countries. If in doubt, employers can turn to their national equality body for support. A focus on prevention is as critical for the long term as the need to provide remedies once the problem has occurred. Several equality bodies already work closely with employers and education providers to support them in developing equality plans that take a holistic approach to gender equality, seeing sexual harassment as one of the issues that need to be addressed to ensure equality in practice.

The last European level research on the prevalence of sexual harassment was conducted by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union in 2014. At the time, they found that 55% of women had experienced sexual harassment since the age of 15, while an astounding 75% of women in qualified professions and management positions had been sexually harassed.

“We have to keep a spotlight on this problem and keep working on the solutions,” Anne Gaspard warns. Equality bodies have conducted several awareness raising campaigns, both with the general public and with stakeholders. “It is our legal obligations vis-à-vis victims of sexual harassment everywhere to take the problem seriously and implement evidence-based policies to make sure no one is treated disrespectfully,” the Equinet Executive Director concludes.

Equinet currently has a work stream focusing on violence against women and gender based violence, and supports the European Coalition to End Violence against Women.

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