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Written by Ansam Al Tammam and translated by Ghassan Makarem

Salma Ahmad, a 24-year-old graphic designer, 1  graphic designer, quit her job without mentioning the reasons. But that was the only way for her to put an end to her manager's harassment.

“I kept trying to avoid him and being with him in the same place, but he kept harassing me,” said Salma. “The problem was that whenever I’d tell my female colleagues, they’d advise me to keep quiet so that I don’t lose my source of income.”

“Whenever it happened, I felt helpless. It hurts that I wasn't able to defend myself and that there was no dedicated authority I could turn to and complain about what was happening,” she added, then went on to describe some of the incidents she went through: “I’d usually be sitting behind my desk working on my computer and he’d come so close to me that he’d touch me, claiming he wanted to review my designs. I also often found pornographic videos uploaded on my work computer and I don't know how they got there.”

Reem Badr is a 30-year-old pharmacist who experienced similar incidents. “I quit my job after a male colleague kept sending me messages after hours, most of them either flirting with me or telling sexual jokes,” she explained. “At the time, I couldn't tell my husband about what was happening, especially since it took me a long time to convince him to let me get back to work after having our first child. So, I went to the pharmacy owner and told him. He said that those were personal problems between colleagues and that we should talk and settle them on our own! But discussing it with my colleague didn't do any good, so I quit.”

In offices, among industrial machines, behind counters, even while commuting to work, there are many hidden stories of harassment, like those shared by Reem, Salma, and Khawla, who had to face groups of harassers daily to get to work. “You may think I’m exaggerating,” she said “but I was facing dozens of harassers on the daily using public transport. My energy would be completely depleted by the time I got to work. I’d arrive angry and hurt for being a female!”

“I’d receive salacious looks, indecent words and touches,” Khawla added, recalling what she’d go through. “This would happen daily and I had to come to work happy, smiling and full of energy. I couldn't take it. I felt drained and humiliated. So, I decided to quit my job.”

Numbers and Implications

A case study of violence and harassment in Jordan, conducted by ActionAid-Jordan, revealed that “One in five women experienced one or more forms of VAWG [violence against women & girls] in the workplace.”

The study also indicated that “The more precarious the work, the higher the risk of violence and harassment. The highest rates of VAWG were interns [...] and daily wage workers.”

The study showed the “need to address violence within all levels of institutions [as] illustrated by the finding that 29% of women kept silent about the violence and harassment they experienced” while “17% feared that revenge would be taken against them.” Moreover, 14% of women harassment survivors quit their jobs.

“Women were also worried about having to remember and recount their experiences; the social consequences of reporting, like stigma and shame, not knowing exactly what to do and deciding that the consequences of reporting were not worth it,” according to the authors.

It should be noted that the study was based on a survey of 2323 workers in Jordanian factories, which found that 20% of women workers experienced staring, 17% faced verbal sexual harassment, 16% received unwanted messages, and 15% were subjected to unwanted touching.

Furthermore, the study found that violence and harassment occurred on the way to and from work 40% of the time. “This finding is relevant to the ILO Convention, which emphasises that governments and organisations should take steps to ensure protection from VAWG on the commute,” said the authors.

The Violation of Women's Rights and the Importance of Legislation

According to rights activist Mahmoud Samhan, who's also one of the contributors in the above-mentioned case study, lack of education is one of the main reasons behind harassment in the workplace. In fact, certain behaviors defined as harassment, such as staring and catcalling, are considered by some harassers acceptable, inoffensive, and harmless to the individual on the receiving end.

Samhan maintained that this issue is part of the systemic violation of women's rights in society. Although a few males reported having experienced sexual harassment in the survey, the rate of harassed females was much higher.

Samhan noted that the issue may be addressed by enacting regulations and legislation in Jordan to control this behavior. According to the Jordanian Labor Law, sexual harassment is punishable if perpetrated by the employee while harassment by a colleague isn't mentioned. Samhan stresses the need to draw up internal regulation within the institutions themselves to deter and penalize harassers in the workplace, in addition to organizing education campaigns that include male and female employers and employees in order to increase societal awareness of the issue and its negative impact.

According to the Sisterhood Is Global Institute (SIGI) in Jordan, sexual harassment is still in the stage of societal denial, the most dangerous stage in facing this phenomenon. Silence about sexual harassment, considered a first step, will open the door to more serious sexual assault crimes. In Jordan in 2017, 3 incidents of sexual molestation were recorded daily and 1 incident of rape every 2 days. SIGI asserts that addressing harassment is a shared responsibility under knowledge and data-based evidence.

SIGI also highlights the urgent need to admit that the phenomenon exists in order to get over the denial stage, which still prevents all stakeholders and responsible parties from taking swift and effective measures, thus allowing us to move on to the stage of addressing sexual harassment head-on, and focus more on prevention, protection, response, rehabilitation and treatment.

Jordan and the Convention to Combat Violence and Harassment in the World of Work

Since 2015, the International Labor Organization (ILO) has been striving to issue standards and recommendations related mainly to violence against men and women in the workplace. The ILO's efforts culminated in the proposed agreements and recommendations through the report issued in June 2019, titled Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work at the International Labor Conference in Geneva. The report, as a whole, aims to protect male and female workers from all forms of violence and harassment in the workplace.

This report was sent to governments who were asked to suggest any amendments or propositions, after consulting with representative organizations of employers and workers. The ILO received replies from the 101 member states.

Civil society organizations and stakeholders eagerly awaited Jordan's vote, signature, and participation in this convention, especially since Jordan was one of the countries that sent a delegate to participate in the conference from which the agreement emerged.

The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, made up of independent and trade unions and civil society organizations, has urged the Jordanian government to sign the Convention.

In one of their reports, SIGI stressed the need for Jordan to sign this Convention, especially since political will is present through government policies. They also noted that the Ministry of Labor, as part of the government's priorities program (2019-2020), has developed binding policies for companies with 10 or more workers to protect them from violence and harassment in the workplace. The Ministry has also amended companies’ Internal Regulations to ensure the mandatory existence of such policies, whereby new companies will not be registered without providing policies for the protection against violence and harassment.

Sexual Harassment: The Hidden Barrier to Women’s Work in Jordan

1 All names in this article were changed to protect the privacy and safety of the witnesses.

2 Case study on violence and harassment in the workplace.

3 SIGI's report published in 12/12/2018.

4 ILO: Convention to Combat Violence and Harassment in the World of Work