After two weeks of intense negotiations in Geneva, an international law to end sexual violence and harassment in the world of work has been adopted. Agreed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), this is a historic moment for working women around the world.
Thanks to this decision, an international standard has been set and now it’s up to individual countries to implement it. Shockingly, fifty-nine countries (according to the World Bank) do not currently protect working women against violence and harassment at work by law.
With violence affecting one in three women globally, this lack of protection is shameful. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we know all too well that sexual harassment isn’t confined to dark alleyways late at night. Many women around the world are subjected to violence in broad daylight every single day and the workplace is no exception.
Unfortunately, we know that for many women, work is not a safe place. According to a recent ActionAid survey, 8 in 10 garment workers in Bangladesh have experienced or witnessed sexual violence at work, with 1 in 10 experiencing it right now. Witnessing a colleague being sexually assaulted on the factory floor, women being abused for not meeting targets or fired for being pregnant are all realities in Bangladesh and it goes without saying that this is not acceptable.
Bangladesh is not the only country where women experience shocking levels of violence at work – unfortunately it happens in every corner of the globe.
Beneath so much of this violence is a common idea: that women and girls’ bodies are the property of men, for them to exploit and control but no one should have to go through this to make a living. Violence in the workplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum but if unchallenged, it opens the door to other forms of violence, like rape, which contributes to holding women back and exacerbates gender inequality.
To make matters worse, the majority of women who experience violence have no access to justice. Broken justice systems and other barriers like limited legal support and fear of retribution put women off reporting crimes, while many who do report never get justice. ActionAid UK works with women and girls in over 42 countries worldwide to ensure that survivors have a voice and can claim their rights, but more needs to be done.
We, therefore, welcome this new international law as an important step towards recognising that women have every right to be free from violence at work. Now we need countries to step up their game and implement this law at national level to truly make violence in the workplace a thing of the past and not forget to turn their attention to eliminating all other forms of violence too.
ActionAid UK is campaigning to secure access to justice for women and girl survivors worldwide. To find out more, visit www.actionaid.org.uk/justice.