Editorial: Finally, serious research into sexual harassment in Jamaica
March 01, 2020
|The Mona campus of the regional University of the West Indies|
Amidst the understandable preoccupation with the novel coronavirus, news related to another virus of sorts — pernicious sexual harassment — has been somewhat overshadowed.
On Friday, the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport signed a memorandum of understanding with The University of the West Indies (UWI) to commence research on sexual harassment in Jamaica.
We welcome this development. The twinned institutions will be the core of a consortium including the Ministry of Labour, Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute and The UWI Institute for Gender and Development Studies.
Sexual harassment is, by definition, behaviour characterised by the making of unwelcome and inappropriate sexual remarks or physical advances in a workplace or other professional or social setting. It is widely accepted as a major problem in Jamaica and indeed worldwide.
The legal definition and social understanding of sexual harassment, however, vary across cultures. Mr Orlando Patterson, Jamaican professor at America's Harvard University, made a key observation.
In a famous op-ed in the New York Times about the Anita Hill sexual harassment accusation of Clarence Thomas, Professor Paterson said “gender relations, especially new ones, are complex and invariably ambiguous; in our heterogeneous society, the perception of what constitutes proper and effective male-female relations varies across gender, class, ethnicity and region”.
In recent times, sexual abuse — which tends to be unambiguous physical acts — has been uncovered in numerous organisations. And most horrendously, the sexual abuse of children — notably in the Catholic church — has led to the demise of the Boy Scouts of America.
The “Me Too Movement” in the United States has outed famous and powerful people such as Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. It has taken far too long, but the widespread problem of sexual harassment in Jamaica is finally beginning to receive the attention it deserves.
The 2019 Sexual Harassment Act is under review by a joint select committee of Parliament where the public will have an opportunity to submit comments.
The problem has been mostly ignored because the most common form, men harassing women, is dismissed as just a part of male behaviour.
It is largely invisible to policymakers because of under-reporting. There is a paucity of statistical data in Jamaica because formal complaints are typically not investigated or punished.
In the United States, a report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016 states that 25–85 per cent of women say they have experienced sexual harassment at work. But few ever report the incidents, most commonly due to fear of reprisal.
In France, a person who makes a sexual harassment complaint at work is reprimanded or fired 40 per cent of the time, while the accused person is not investigated or punished.
In Jamaica, it is difficult to ascertain the extent and types of sexual harassment, though anecdotal evidence suggests it is widespread, and the harm caused is not reported and not measured in quantitative terms. We hope all that will soon change.