Sexual harassment has become a major cause for concern in Bangladesh, with an alarming rise in reports of women and girls being harassed. In this third part of a series, the Dhaka Tribune explores the pressure women face at their jobs when reporting harassment
The supervisor used to send dirty jokes to Samia (not her real name), but she ignored them fearing the loss of her job, before it went out of control one day.
In mid-November last year, the office was almost empty as some of her colleagues including her were working on special duty on a holiday.
“The boss came to my desk, and asked me why I did not respond to the jokes. I just smiled but said nothing. Suddenly he touched my back and said he likes me a lot. He said he can secure my job if I meet him in person outside the office,” said Samia, who was then working at a private firm in Dhanmondi as an intern.
Samia rejected the proposition, and lost the job the following day on charges of misconduct with the supervisor.
“It was so shameful. I could not share the actual incident as nobody would believe what happened to me. Also I didn’t want people to gossip about my character,” she said.
Sexual harassment at the workplace is not unusual. Many women and girls, no matter where they work, encounter such incidents. But perpetrators generally enjoy impunity as workplaces do not have the mechanisms necessary to protect victims who report sexual harassment. Many women do not report sexual harassment due to concerns about job security and social stigma.
Different studies have been conducted by non-government organizations on sexual harassment in public places, but the Dhaka Tribune failed to find a general study on sexual harassment in workplaces. Most studies on workplace sexual harassment in Bangladesh focused on the ready-made garment sector, but the abuse is quite common in government offices and private organizations as well.
According to a 2015 study conducted by ActionAid, 84% women and girls from seven cities in Bangladesh face ‘derogatory comments and sexually colored abusive language’. Another 2017 study of ActionAid stated that a total of 54.7% women living in urban areas face violence, including physical, psychological, financial, social violence as well as unwanted physical contact by strangers.
Sexual harassment in garment factories, police force
Roksana, 22, who came to Dhaka from Mymensingh five years ago, was raped on her third day at a garment factory by a clerk.
But she did not file any complaint at the advice of another colleague who said she might lose her job if it comes out publicly.
“I had to keep silent as I needed the job, but nowadays sexual harassment is very common in factories. Most female workers face nasty comments from co-workers, as well as unwanted touching regularly,” she said.Female police personnel have also been victims of sexual harassment by their colleagues.
On April 2, 2017, 23-year-old Constable Halima Begum died by suicide when she poured kerosene all over her body and set herself on fire in her room at the barrack of Gouripur police station in Mymensingh.
She left behind a statement to the officer-in-charge (OC) of police station, saying that she was raped by Sub-Inspector Mizanul Islam of the same station. But the OC took no action against the alleged rapits.
According to statistics of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Bangladesh, more than 10% of female police personnel face some form of sexual harassment at the workplace.
At the mid-level, 2.7% of sub-inspectors and 3.3% of assistant sub-inspectors reported sexual harassment. In the lower tier, among constables, the number is greater than 10%.
Bangladesh Police Women Network Vice-President Shamima Begum, also deputy commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police, said: “This statistic is not clear because it did not involve our thousands of female police personnel. It is not a fair statement. There are a few isolated incidents of harassment or rape.”
She added: “Our workplace is safer for women than other workplaces. This type of statistics only serves to harm our morale.”
The HC directive, issued on May 14, 2009, makes it mandatory for workplaces to form a five-member harassment complaint committee, headed by a woman in their respective organizations to investigate allegations of sexual harassment. However, most offices either do not have such committees, or the committees remain ineffective.
According to Section 10 (2) of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000, a person will be sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for a minimum of two years to a maximum of seven years if he sexually harasses women, or makes gestures that may be construed as obscene.
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad President Ayesha Khanam said: “Sexual harassment is a cancer in society and we need to raise public awareness and act accordingly to root it out.”
Former executive director at Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association Salma Ali said the HC guideline is now used as a law, since there is no specific law to deal with sexual harassment.
“The guideline alone is not sufficient to deal with sexual harassment cases. We have prepared a draft and proposed the government to make a law, but there is no progress,” she said.
National Human Rights Commission Chairman Kazi Reazul Hoque said stakeholders and the government should work for the formulation of a law which will have direction, category of offenses, and punishment.
“We do not have any compact data on workplace sexual harassment as most women do not complain. If there is a law, it can help protect employees and prevent workplace harassment of women. I think women will be more willing to complain if the law is in place,” he said.