We need structural reform to end sexual harassment and violence against women

by 02nd Mar 2018
People marching at the #March4Women event in London for International Women's Day 2017 People marching at the #March4Women event in London for International Women's Day 2017

#MeToo began with the bravery of individual women not willing to be silenced about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. Their voices have become a global movement exposing the systemic nature of sexism and male entitlement in all industries and countries. And, with #AidToo, #LabourToo and #MosqueMeToo, the movement has shown that no section of work or society is immune.

This is not news to most women, or many men. In England and Wales alone, 20% of women have been subject to sexual assault since the age of 16, around 10 women and 1 man are raped every hour and 2 women are killed every week by a partner or ex-partner. Over half of the women surveyed by the Trade Union Congress in 2016 said they had experienced some form of harassment at work, including 10% who reported unwanted sexual touching.

What has changed is media and public attention to the scale of sexual harassment and abuse – and this presents an opportunity for us to end it.

That’s why CARE and its partners are #StillMarching.

On Sunday 4th March CARE International UK will be holding its annual #March4Women march and rally in London. With Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of suffrage leader Emmeline Pankhurst, we will be retracing the century-old footsteps of her suffragette ancestors from Parliament Square to Trafalgar Square. We will be marching with our collaborators and modern-day feminists, like Faeeza Vaid and the Muslim Women’s Network, Shola Mos-Shogbamimu and Nazma Akhter, UNISON and the Fawcett Society. We will be joined by many more women’s rights organisations from the UK Centenary Action Group.

Together we will call for an end to the injustice of violence and harassment in all workplaces – whether this is a parliament or a factory, a humanitarian disaster or a hotel room.

Like the suffragettes’ cause, workplace violence and discrimination is an injustice rooted in unequal power and in the denial of the equal worth and value of every human being. We have learnt from the suffragettes’ successes with using the power of mobilisation and alliances to create change. We have also learnt from their mistakes. We recognise that gender equality can only be achieved if all women have equal rights and dignity and are able to live a life free from violence – whatever their sexuality, ethnicity, religion, class, country of origin, age or ability.

We also recognise that gender equality requires more than a change in laws and regulations or in the behaviour of a few individuals.

To end sexual violence and harassment we need to talk about the structural roots of gender inequality – the systemic privileging of men and particular expressions of masculinity.

We need to talk about how patriarchy intersects with other forms of systemic power and privilege in ways that penalise women of colour – especially those on a low income – and, in fact, disadvantages most of us (which includes men who do not fit the patriarchal template). We need to grab this opportunity for the structural reform needed to end patriarchy and all other forms of prejudice and oppression. To do this, we must apply the approach to gender equality we promote in our international programmes to our own communities, organisations and societies.

Gender equality reform has three branches and one fertiliser

There are three branches of reform to achieve gender equality and a life free from violence for all. All three branches must be nurtured simultaneously in our communities, organisations and societies.

Rights & accountability

Laws and policies must guarantee everyone’s right to be free from violence and harassment in the workplace. This is why CARE International is calling on government, employers and unions to support a new ILO Convention on Ending Violence and Harassment in the Workplace, and for the definition of workers and workplace to ensure that women working in private homes, such as domestic workers, or in public places, such as parliament and political parties, are also protected. To ensure workers have rights in practice, government and employers must establish clear and independent mechanisms for reporting, review and action.

However, many women are unwilling to report sexual misconduct. They know women who speak out may face disbelief, be shunned by colleagues, lose their job or be subject to further violence.

To show they will take action and encourage more women to report, it’s imperative that all employers, including CARE International, publish data on reports of harassment and abuse and what the outcome of investigation was.

Employees may still not feel safe to report when they experience or witness misconduct or abuse. Organisations therefore need ways for people to report informally – such as anonymous phone lines or through union or staff representatives – to provide the feedback loops that alert management when the formal prevention and protection mechanisms are failing.

Leadership & representation

Women with different backgrounds and identities must be represented in all types of leadership and at all levels of decision-making. Equal representation is fair; it avoids ‘group-think’ and leads to better decisions and more effective organisations. A common factor in the recent sexual exploitation and harassment cases is that men, often white, are at the top of organisations and making decisions. Laws or policies will not reflect women’s experiences, needs and preferences, and men will continue to evade accountability, unless women are included in decision-making.

What actions are needed to increase women’s representation depends on the country, sector and the specific barriers women face to having access and influence. However, the recommendations of the UK Women and Equalities Committee reflects global evidence on what works to increase women’s political representation, including parties publishing data on characteristics of candidates throughout selection process and quotas and other temporary measures to boost women’s numbers, such as all-women short lists (and, before someone says it, the current system is not meritocratic with its in-built bias towards selecting male candidates, and affirmative action does not lead to less competent politicians).

Publishing data on pay gaps and distribution by gender and other characteristics at different levels of the organisation is also critical for employers to understand and address representation gaps. Looking at how people are recruited to the organisation and progress within it is another key area, e.g. where jobs are advertised, how adverts are worded, whether selection processes are ‘blind’, and mentoring schemes available for groups under-represented in management.

Culture & norms

Women’s representation is not enough. We must also change our shared expectations of the ‘natural’ roles, abilities and behaviour of women and men. Women – whether they are a local councillor or a president – are less able to represent their own and others’ interests when they are forced to fit into ways of working that have traditionally suited men (or a particular idea of what it is to be man) or where sexism chips away at their confidence and credibility.

This is the hardest branch of all to nurture, because it is about the countless decisions and choices we make every day – the language we use, who we show respect to, who we invite in and who we silence – that creates environments in which harassment and violence breeds and persists.

To break down stereotypes we need to increase people’s exposure to different ways of being and thinking. This is not about one-off training sessions but an ongoing endeavour to facilitate reflection and dialogue about our power, privilege and bias. At CARE, we use our Gender Equity and Diversity curriculum to guide these conversations and apply them to different issues, including sexual harassment.

Governments and employers also need to remove gender-specific barriers women face to workforce participation – in particular around improving affordable childcare, shared parental leave, and flexible working.

Male allies and champions are essential to gender reform because cultural change can only come through changes in both women and men’s attitudes and expectations about their and others behaviours. And exposure to both women and men doing roles traditionally the preserve of the other is essential to change gendered expectations and break down hierarchies. Outside the immediate workplace, education and the media are the critical levers for increasing and changing future generations’ expectations about masculinity and femininity.

Women’s solidarity & organising

To nurture these branches, there is an all-important fertiliser of women’s solidarity and organising: we must enable women to exchange experiences and organise. Coalitions across sex, gender and other identities, and from inside and outside of government, are essential to end gender inequality.

Women’s rights organisations and feminist networks have been the main force to challenge patriarchy, in individual organisations and globally. They are the canaries in the mine. They alert society to injustice and what needs to be done to address them. They also sound the alarm against threats to the rights women have already won.

One of the practices of patriarchy is to marginalise feminist voices by withdrawing funding or ridiculing and diminishing their voice – as the backlash to #MeToo is showing. Governments and the international community, including international NGOs, need to ensure that women’s rights organisations and networks have the funding they need to represent and provide services to their communities, and that they are at the table and heard when agendas are set and where decisions are being made about rules, accountability, representation and culture.

At a panel on the working class women’s movement at the FILIA conference in 2017, a working-class activist on the panel gave this advice to her middle-class sisters: do less talking and more listening, and give up your seat at the table. White middle-class feminists in the #MeToo movement need to heed this advice too. As does the aid sector: international development and humanitarian organisations have power and privilege and can sometimes reinforce inequalities. We need to be conscious of power relations in all we do. For organisations like CARE, this means being honest about how we work with women’s rights organisations and making the changes needed to be better allies.

The opportunity that #MeToo has created

We cannot afford to waste the opportunity #MeToo has created to end harassment, abuse and exploitation of women and girls in our workplaces in all its forms. To honour the bravery of the women that have spoken out and told their stories, we must do more than trim a few leaves and sweep up a few bad apples. We need to name the problem of patriarchy and other forms of structural privilege and work together to uproot them. We need to look at how we guarantee the rights and wellbeing with the least voice and power of those in our organisations and society, not make small changes to the lives of those with relatively less power.

This is what feminism is and this is what will create a more equal and just world.

This blog was co-authored by Tam ONeil, Senior Gender Advisor, CARE International UK, and Allison Burden, Head of Gender Equality, CARE International.

Tam O'Neil

My role is to provide technical advice to CARE International UK’s programme and operational teams to help meet our commitment to integrate gender equality and equity into all our activities. It’s an incredibly varied job and hard to sum up! As a taster, here are some of the things I’ve been doing in the past year. For our programme teams, I’ve been supporting the roll out of the new CARE gender marker, setting up a new project to learn how CARE can build sustainable partnerships with women’s rights organisations, and setting up our new Women Lead initiative with our Gender in Emergencies Team. Internally, I’m leading CARE International UK’s Gender Equity and Diversity audit and rolling out the CARE Gender Equity and Diversity Training, which helps staff to better understand and discuss power, privilege and working across differences.

My passion is women’s political leadership and representation. Men’s over-representation at the top of politics, business, academia and civil society is unjust and leads to decisions that don’t reflect the needs and experiences of half the population adequately. As part of my day job I get to collaborate with committed feminists to try to change this. I’m a member of CARE International’s Gender Network, I co-chair the UK Gender and Development Network Working Group on Women’s Leadership and Participation with Oxfam, and I support CARE’s work with the cross-sector UK Centenary Action Group.

Before joining CARE in September 2016, I was a Research Fellow in the Politics and Governance Team at the Overseas Development Institute.

Email: oneil@careinternational.org