Concern J'can culture could pose challenge with sexual harassment Bill

Concern J'can culture could pose challenge with sexual harassment Bill

BY CANDIECE KNIGHT
Observer staff reporter
knightc@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, December 05, 2019

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JAMAICA'S “highly sexualised culture” could pose a major challenge to the enforcement of laws against sexual harassment when they are passed, experts say.

Speaking at this week's Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange at the newspaper's head office on Beechwood Avenue in St Andrew, associate counselling psychologist Rosemarie Voordouw, who chairs the Jamaican Psychological Society (JamPsych), emphasised that education and training are essential in combating sexual harassment in the workplace.

“I've seen sexual harassment at its ugliest in some of the areas I have worked, and I have recognised that our Jamaican culture makes us accept sexual harassment more because we are highly sexualised,” Voordouw told editors and reporters. “In some places sexual harassment is so endemic that it is considered the norm, and so if you come in and you don't like it, you leave.”

The sexual harassment Bill, which is now under review by a parliamentary committee, defines sexual harassment in the workplace as “the making of any unwelcome sexual advance towards a person by another person, which is reasonably regarded as offensive or humiliating by the person towards whom the sexual advance was made; or has the effect of interfering unreasonably with the work performance of the person to whom the sexual advance is made; or creating an intimidating, offensive or a hostile work environment”.

The psychologist argued that while sexual harassment is an international phenomenon, it's even worse in Jamaica because of the country's culture, and that Jamaica needed to start a “culture change” if the country is to eradicate it from workplace.

At the same time, attorney-at-law Kwame Gordon pointed out that the differences in cultural backgrounds, even among Jamaicans, bears significant weight on what is interpreted as sexual harassment, so context will be essential in enforcing legislation.

“The whole concept of sexual harassment is predicated on context because people have different thresholds. Maybe some persons may have been more accustomed to aggressive talk in a certain context, while other persons are not. The law is saying that once it is unwelcome and uninvited, then that is where the focus is,” Gordon said.

Voordouw recommended that, along with passing the sexual harassment Bill into law, greater emphasis be placed on education and training.

“Where a workplace has a clear policy and trained workers, that reduces sexual harassment more than if you just provide information,” she said. “There are some companies that require it as mandatory annual training, and I would recommend that for anyone who is serious about sexual harassment.”

Acting senior director of the Bureau of Gender Affairs Sharon Coburn Robinson said while the conversation about sexual harassment was started many years ago, the Bill has provided a new thrust towards public education on the issue.

“We've had presentations across Jamaica, though not as widespread as we'd like to have them,” she said, noting that the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport has been collaborating with entities, through its human resource teams, to increase awareness over the years.

“But certainly now that we have the Bill, and we're going to have these discussions at the joint select committee, we want to have it across Jamaica as widely as possible. The intention is to have the media lit up as much as possible with information on sexual harassment,” she said. “We also have brochures that we have created and we distribute these, and we explain to persons what exactly it is. The education should be widespread, as much as possible, but of course we need help.”

Voordouw, meanwhile, stated that Jamaica will not only need to look at how co-workers treat each other, but to start at the grass roots by teaching children how to show respect.

“I think the law is an excellent way to start putting in a structure around which we can change a culture in different organisations and institutions. I also think we need to back it up by starting to change the culture at the stage of our children. So now we have the law as this big context around which we can build for the adults. Let's work with the children as well to help them to understand how to respect each other, and how to like each other respectfully,” she said.


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