Promoting gender equality and preventing harassment is a priority of the Finnish foreign policy. Last Fall, the Permanent Mission of Finland, together with UN Women and the Permanent Mission of Germany, hosted a discussion on lessons learned and best practices to end sexual harassment at work.
Elimination of sexual harassment gained global momentum in October 2017 when the #MeToo movement opened a global discussion on the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. Soon also voices outside the entertainment industry started to emerge: NGOs like Oxfam, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders completed internal audits to publicly take responsibility of mishaps in their systems.
Several UN employees also came forward with their experiences and claimed that harassment is a systemic problem across the organization. In the past year, the UN has taken significant steps towards eliminating sexual harassment and all other forms of discrimination in the UN system. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed a special task force to address sexual harassment in UN organizations.
UN Women’s Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Addressing Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination Dr. Purna Sen moderated the discussion we hosted at our new office in October. She opened the discussion by saying that we have less than 12 years left in the Agenda 2030, and the 5th goal of the agenda aims to eliminate violence against women and girls. Sexual harassment stems from historic imbalances and a male-dominated culture that has not yet been overcome.
A profound cultural change is needed in order to bring an end to sexual harassment. Breaking the culture of silence should be a collective goal, said Ivana Pajevic, UN-Women Executive Board President, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Montenegro to the United Nations.
Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis from the University of Pennsylvania continued by pointing out that there currently are 104 countries that prevent women from working in some jobs, 18 countries where a husband can legally forbid his wife from working and 59 countries which have no laws on sexual harassment.
If more women were appointed to leadership positions, we could see more guidelines and legislation put to action. For example in Argentina, a pilot is underway to highlight the harassment women face on their way to work. The plan is to create a violence response line to which women can send a text message if they are subject to harassment on public transport, said Fabiana Tunez, The Director of National Institute of the Women in Argentina. As another example of concrete action, Jan Beagle, the Chair of the United Nation’s new CEB Task Force on Sexual Harassment brought forward a new way to train people who work at the UN. There is now a mandatory e-learning course on the prevention of harassment, sexual harassment and abuse of authority.
Umran Beba, the Global Diversity, Engagement and Talent Officer at PepsiCo, emphasized how it is key for all anti-harassment initiatives to hear the victims. For PepsiCo this means that a special program with trainings and audits was put to place to ensure the well-being of 260,000 employees all around the world. Permanent Representative of Finland to the United Nations, H. E. Ambassador Kai Sauer emphasized Finland’s commitment to the elimination of sexual harassment and mentioned that the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has developed staff training on tackling sexual harassment, and the annual government job satisfaction survey now includes questions concerning harassment.
In the elimination of sexual harassment, creating appropriate reporting and investigation procedures for allegations of sexual harassment are essential in order to ensure that the rights of both victims and alleged perpetrators are protected and due process is respected. It is also important to avoid retaliation against and revictimisation of those who step forward. We need to empower the victims and give them a platform to share their stories in order to achieve sustainable change.
Dana Sussman, the Deputy Commissioner of New York City’s Commission on Human Rights said that the #MeToo movement challenged the city of over 8 million people to think what can be done to prevent harassment. The Commission decided to ask victims to tell their stories and use storytelling to illustrate the problem to the people living in New York City. Aashish Khullar from the UN Major Group for Children and Youth agreed in saying that listening to the victims is important. Sharing experiences helps others come forward with their own experiences without making them feel embarrassed.
Global Lead Antonia Kirkland said that in 2008, her organization Equality Now received many complaints from women working for the UN. What they noticed was that many victims did not want to report any incidents to their supervisor, which in some cases was also the perpetrator and that often no sanctions were imposed. With transparency of investigations, organizations can ensure that victims are taken seriously and that disturbing behavior will not continue.
The fact that there were not enough seats in the room highlights the importance of the topic. The only way to bring about change is to work together to make sexual harassment an occurrence in the past, no longer tolerated anywhere, and never silently approved. As the Finnish Ambassador Sauer underlined at our event, the momentum for change is now.
See also: A Twitter thread from the event.