Before the #MeToo movement
Legislative action still requiredSunday, June 20, 2021
Many of us can remember October 1991 when, through public televised confirmation hearings, Professor Anita Hill courageously brought to our global consciousness to personal experiences of sexual harassment by her supervisor at the United States Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). As it turned out, this supervisor was US Supreme Court nominee, Justice Clarence Thomas.
Back then the national attention Professor Hill received was not for her esteemed qualifications, but more for her brazenness — that she would dare to embarrass and prevent the first black man from being elevated to the United States Supreme Court.
Former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that conducted the hearings, now President Joe Biden, admitted in an article carried by The Washington Post in 2017 that he believed Hill and was sorry “if she felt she didn't get a fair hearing”.
Fast-forward to Warsaw, Montana, where shipping clerk Peggy Kimzey reported that her supervisor and other male employees would constantly badger her with unnerving sexual remarks while she worked. In one example, Peggy recounted that, while bending over a package, she heard a laugh directly behind her with the exclamation, “I have now found somewhere to put my screwdriver.” Peggy resigned from the company in 1993, citing that the daily sexual harassment being meted out to her created a 'hostile working environment'. In 1995 a jury ordered Walmart Stores Inc to pay Peggy US$50 million ($7.5 billion) — the largest damage awarded in a sexual harassment case.
Here at home, lecturer Taitu Heron, in a study, 'Whose Business Is It? Violence Against Women at UWI, Mona 2013', compiled student reports made to the Office of Security Services on campus. Heron recounts that the student group was called into the principal's office and reprimanded for bringing the university into ill repute. Heron concluded that the primary concern of the university was not the incidents against the women, but rather indignation that the students had expressed the incidents in an open forum.
Sexual harassment is pervasive, and Claire Barnett from the UN Women UK describes it as a “human rights crisis”, whereby women are constantly changing their behaviour so as not to be objectified or attacked at work or when they leave their homes. “At the root of all this is the normalisation of the idea that a woman's body in a public place is simply public property and young women just have to put up with it.” ( The Guardian, 2021)
A US survey conducted in 2015 revealed that one in three women (18 to 34 years of age) experienced being sexually harassed at work. Of the 2,235 women surveyed, 81 per cent said the harassment was verbal, and 44 per cent reported unwanted touching. It was also verified that, while 75 per cent of the incidents were perpetrated by their male co-workers, only 29 per cent of the women took the decision to make a formal report to their employer. (The Huffington Post, 2017)
World governments have long recognised that, aside from being a violation of human rights, sexual harassment hampers a country's development (United Nations 1979). Jamaica was one of the countries that crafted and committed to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action under the leadership of Portia Simpson Miller when she was the minister with responsibility for women's affairs.
Upon her national elevation to prime minister in 2011 she mandated a complete review of several pieces of legislation to include stronger penalties for individuals who violated the safety and human development of our women and children. Consequently, a parliamentary joint select committee was created to deliberate the Child Care and Protection Act, the Offences Against the Person Act, the Sexual Offences Act, and the Domestic Violence Act. Her unrelenting commitment empowered former minister of gender affairs and minister of justice, senators Sandrea Falconer and Mark Golding, to begin the process of developing additional legislation with specific sanctions for sexual harassment in the home, workplace and institutions.
By December 8, 2015 a Bill entitled 'An Act to Make Provision for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and for Connected Matters' was tabled in the Jamaican Parliament by Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller. However, by February of the following year the People's National Party lost the general election and the Bill was not debated.
What happened thereafter was a global discussion on the issue of sexual harassment, wherein women around the world showed up on social media to share their experiences of how sexual harassment had formalised a structure through which they had been kept sexually enthralled to men, and where they were required in one form or another to exchange sexual services for their material survival (Catharine A MacKinnon). This was the tipping point for the #MeToo Movement, which moved dozens of famous women to divulge publicly that they had been sexually abused and harassed over the years by global phenoms Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. As a result of their testimonies both men were charged of the offences, found guilty, and later sentenced to serve time in prison.
Better late than never
On July 8, 2021 Minister of Gender Affairs Olivia “Babsy” Grange brought back to Parliament 'An Act to Make Provision for the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and/or Connected Matters'.
How will we get this Bill to be fully understood and accepted by Jamaicans? For starters, this Bill will not change our ingrained cultural social norms overnight, but it is a crucial step in the right direction as it will place the burden on companies, schools, and other institutions to implement stated polices that ban any form of sexual advances or sexual harassment towards their students, employees, or customers that could make them feel uncomfortable. It will also provide support to women and men who feel disenfranchised to stand up for themselves for fear of reprisal or loss of income.
As a young woman I recall watching Professor Anita Hill on television as she gave intimate, personal details to justify her claims that Justice Clarence Thomas did indeed sexually harass her. Now, 30 years later, as our nation grapples with overwhelming cases of gender-based violence and other heinous crimes of passion against the most vulnerable among us, especially our women, let us get this Bill through the parliamentary process as quickly as possible, recognising that sexual harassment, when left unchecked, can lead to far more dangerous behaviour.
Lisa Hanna is a Member of Parliament and People's National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade.
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