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When Workplace Becomes Inferno for Women: Sexual Harassment

Photo Credit: Musfiq Tajwar, Solidarity Center


S O C I E T Y – B A N G L A D E S H


Aadrito Maitra, Priyo Joty

Picture this:

You’re in a soundproof torture cell. The cell is surrounded by a group of obnoxious, terrifying people, operating the horrendous torture. The vicinity of the arena is abounded by  general anxious people, watching the whole scene not being able to do anything. Meanwhile, you’re being tortured, screaming to no avail, rather you’re being pressurised increasingly. You’re now mentally severely injured. The thoughts of suicide and other sorts of psychological distress starts to cripple you from inside. There’s only one way out and that leads to a completely new world where you’ll face nothing less than hatred, criticism, and the constant fear of being unable to stand strong.

Now consider yourself a female worker and the torture as sexual harassment in your own workplace, and voila, the situation of women being sexually harassed at workplaces in Bangladesh, in a nutshell.


Whenever we come across the term “sexual harassment”, the concept of rape and bad touch constantly hit our mind. However, sexual harassment rather engulfs a wide range of actions starting from calling names and up to rape culture. It is worth reiterating the fact that women are constantly facing the repercussions of their stereotypical weakness mostly in the sector of manufacturing — especially, the ready-made garment industry.

Bangladesh is a patriarchal country and rightfully so, that reinforces the stereotypes. According to a survey of Centre for Development Communications commissioned by ActionAid comprising 200 garment workers about their experiences of sexual violence and harassment at work, it was found that 80% of the respondents had been subjected to either abuse or having to see other workers get abused. 

Taking a peek behind the curtain

Rahima, 35, a garment worker and a victim, shared her experience with ActionAid. It was a typical working day when she was asked to stay late by a quality control worker and when she refused to go upstairs late at night, she was violently attacked. When a file was lodged, the manager dismissed the occurrence as an accident.

She says her supervisor behaves badly towards her, especially during shipment time when the workload heavily increases.

“Girls do not like to speak about it openly as they fear losing their jobs. It’s not only their job, but they are also concerned over their reputation, about their families. Many of the young girls are unmarried and they face harassment often.”

The reluctance of the workers to have a talk with anyone about their experiences—be it family members, relatives, or delegates of any organisational survey or project—makes conducting surveys and interviews difficult.

In reality, these figures(instances) are likely to be higher because survivors of abuse are sometimes reluctant to discuss this, whether because of anxiety, shame, or fear of reprisals. 54% declined to answer the question, demonstrating the reluctance and fear around speaking out about sexual violence.

However, if we dig a little deeper, we will come across incidents of harassment in government offices and other private organisations as well, other than the manufacturing sector. A mentionable chunk of it is noticed in the police department. 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.

Again, there are instances of workers losing their jobs due to not abiding by the lascivious requests of other male workers in power. For instance, Samia (pseudonym) used to endure the dirty jokes of her supervisor, in fear of losing her job. One day, while the office was almost empty:

“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. In this way, the fear of job loss restricts the working-class women to lodge any complaint or protest and thus, the stories continue to be neglected and harassment persists.

These are just some of many untold and neglected stories the victims feel reluctant to share. The whole harassment culture boils down to a matter of power.

Patriarchal and misogynistic desires to dominate over women, a male-dominated social structure, chauvinistic rage — altogether, these constituents create a vicious atmosphere for women in contemporary Bangladesh.

It’s evident from the scenario that women have to undergo a lot of vile actions at workplaces on a quotidian basis. The situation has reached the point where women have started to take these incidents for granted as the constant need for employment and poverty have shackled them. 

Power and Insouciance: Root of the issue

Patriarchy and complete ignorance of gender equality have been the two perennial causes of harassment in Bangladesh as a whole, let alone sexual harassment. Perpetrators have almost always enjoyed impunity and these two entities can be regarded as the prime reasons for such predicaments. 

In Bangladesh, HR and gender policies in the corporate world are almost non-existent. And if the policies do remain, those remain ineffective for ages especially in the case of local NGOs and the industrial sector. Often it is seen that factories don’t have such anti-abuse committees. Or if those committees do remain, the situation is the same as the corporate world. Such loopholes in the working industry of Bangladesh continue to remain neglected throughout their ventures. Here’s the main problem: Bangladesh does have HR policies, but in reality, those are all just bells and whistles; more often than not they’re not enforced. And, why do these policies and committees remain neglected? The answer is, power and complete ignorance of gender equality.


They(experts) blamed the situation on the absence of anti-sexual harassment committees in factories.


The corporate world is no better, several major companies still don’t have updated and enforced HR programmes to provide security for their female workers in case any terrible event occurs. Some instances have arisen where if the offender is an authoritarian figure, they get impunity regardless of their actions. Corporate HR seminars are semi non-existent and workers remain ignorant about workplace behaviour. If a workplace superior is responsible for the act, they use their power to silence the victim threatening to nullify their jobs and risk plunging said victim into financial instability. 

Secondly, Bangladesh in general is a comparatively backwater country in terms of issues regarding gender equality. A large portion of the general populace still believe that women should be restrained to in house work and are indifferent toward their advances in their work life, often even criminalising them.

Sometimes, it’s seen that the HR policies and such other policies are made solely to fulfill the interest of the donors or the buyers. The donors or the buyers remain very strict on these issues, and so to not miss any sort of fund, many organisations create the policies to show-off, but in reality, those policies remain ignored. Again, in case of industries, the anti-sexual harassment committees play a great role in preventing violations but then again, there’s the ignorance and power. 

Now in a situation where all of these policies and committees continue to remain inactive, it gives the perpetrators enough scope to continue their violation as they have it in their minds that there’s none to punish them. The victims can start losing hope and either they don’t (might not) pay any heed or might suffer from severe psychological torment and quit altogether. The victim might lose the drive of being involved in any other job because of past indiscrepancies, this sometimes results in the economic insolvency of their families.

According to a former project Coordinator of an international organisation ‘Aparajeyo’ “The sole reasons behind this whole issue are – two words – Power and traditionalism.”

Gradual Degradation of Mental Health: The ultimate outcome

Bangladesh has been very poorly handling the mental health of working-class people. Most people in our country blatantly disregard the existence of mental health. There’s enough discussion about the problematic scenario of the workplace environment in Bangladesh for women, whereas the issue regarding the resultant mental health deterioration is a rather undiscussed one.

The general populace of Bangladesh has turned mental health into a sort of taboo by spreading misinformation, and so, most people remain ignorant about it. The non-existent mental health concepts incline them to assert mental health disorders as either a farce or a sign of paranormal activity — fuelled by age-old superstitions; driving them to apply various conventional and highly illogical fallacies. Amidst the atrocities already being committed, victim-blaming is at the epitome. In most cases, the abused victim is the one who faces the blame. Slut shaming is also a glaring issue in the corporate world, and female success is always held in question. Often assumed that it is related to the female employee having sexual relations with the responsible superior. These success stories are often dampened by gossip, segregation, and sabotage. They are treated as societal outcasts, all while having their characters in question. Alienated from their families, sometimes they drive themselves to commit acts which develop permanent mental and physical trauma. They constantly think that their lives have been ruined and suicide could be a solution to escape from the cycle of trauma. 


On 2nd April of 2017, 23-year-old Constable Halima Begum died of suicide leaving behind a statement to the officer-in-charge (OC) of the 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 rapist. The authoritarian figures we’re supposed to look to, committed such a disgusting act; and we can hardly even imagine how the victim had felt. 


Nonetheless, in a country where the general mindset of people is ingrained like this, mental health and its betterment cannot strive. Mental health institutions are scarce; psychiatrists and psychologists are ridiculed. While psych evaluations are a staple for most workplaces in other countries, here it’s a sign of lunacy. As a consequence of all of these situations combined, every day, millions of working-class women face mental health disorders often caused by disruptions in their workplace but are silent possibly due to ignorance, misinformation, and general inconvenience.

In the end, what’s left to say is that the overall picture of sexual harassment of women at the workplace in the context of Bangladesh is incredibly sadistic and grisly with anguish, all while being terribly cluttered. The situation demands dire action. It is time for a wake-up call and social reform. Women make up almost half of our workforce and if they cannot feel safe in their own place of work, we as a country have failed. Awareness about this problem and solving it is key — the sooner, the better.

 

References

  1. What is Sexual Harassment? In Bangladesh how deep this problem is causing problem? Is there any law according to Bangladeshi justification? If there is any is it properly imposed or not? – Explain & Illustrate.
  2. (PDF) Sexual Harassment of Female Workers at Manufacturing Sectors in Bangladesh
  3. ActionAid Briefing paper: Sexual harassment and violence against garment workers in Bangladesh Introduction
  4. Female Garment Workers are Sexually Harassed?
  5. Workplace sexual harassment remains unreported, ignored
  6. What Is Mental Health?
  7. (PDF) Mental Health in Bangladesh: Yet To Be Explored
  8. Violence against women and mental disorder: a qualitative study in Bangladesh
  9. Rape Culture: If Misogyny Had a Voice | TDA

 


This piece was created in collaboration with BRAC-CGSRHR, BLAST, and CREA under the project “Strengthening the voices and capacities for addressing gender based violence”.  

 

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