Sexual harassment at the workplace

Published On: January 10, 2020 09:27 AM NPT By: URZA ACHARYA

Deepika Paudel, senior accountant assistant at Nepal Airlines, says she feels pretty safe at her workplace. There are cameras installed in several places around her office and, according to her, her seniors are concerned about her safety both inside and outside office. “I haven’t felt any instance of sexual harassment but I have read and heard of instances of harassment cases that occur at offices,” she says. 

In a study titled “Women’s insecurities and the workplace in Nepal” by Daniel Coyle with Ramesh Shrestha and Chiran Jung Thapa in February 2014, that focused on Banke and Bara districts, the key finding was that harassment in public spaces and workplaces is a common but underreported experience for women. So, if women are often vulnerable to sexual harassment at the workplace, it begs the question what laws and procedures do an office or organization have if a case of sexual harassment were to be reported?

In Paudel’s case, if she were to experience sexual harassment of some kind, she would have to first report it to her unit in-charge. After that, the unit in-charge would take it to the director, after which the case would finally reach the chairman who would then make the final decision on what’s to be done. There is no specific committee or department where she can complain directly. 

In some office spaces, however, there are committees and departments that one can go to should they experience any form of sexual harassment. According to the head of human resources at WWF Nepal, Kritika Bista, the organization has a “standing committee of harassment” which is a five-member team that deals with harassment cases in the office space. “If a harassment complaint is lodged, the team goes on a fact-finding mission to get more information on the case,” she says. “And if the perpetrator is found guilty, it results in termination.” 

Bista says that the committee also looks at the gravity of the situation and may try to resolve the issue within the office itself. “The decision the committee makes depends on the severity of the situation. However, we have a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, so the case will not remain unresolved no matter what,” she explains. 

Dipendra Joshi, assistant human resource manager at Soaltee Crowne Plaza, says the hotel is in the process of drafting a policy on workplace harassment. As of now, they are following the laws set by the government as well as the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). “According to IHG policies, sexual harassment is considered a serious crime. So, if any cases were to be reported, we would take serious action,” he explains. 

Joshi reveals that when hiring new employees, they have an “onboarding” session which informs the soon-to-be staff about their roles and duties as well as briefs them on the topic of workplace harassment. “As we let them know early on that any kind of inappropriate behavior won’t be tolerated, we haven’t had such complaints yet,” he says. 

However, should there be such a complaint, Joshi explains that a committee will be formed to dig deeper into the issue. The committee will have a female worker as well as personnel from an organization that deals with workplace harassment issues. “We make sure the team that is formed can make a just and transparent decision about the matter,” he says. 

The Government of Nepal has enacted specific legislation addressing sexual harassment at the workplace to protect the right of every individual to work in a safe environment. The Sexual Harassment at Workplace Prevention Act, 2015 came into effect on February 20, 2015. The act is gender-neutral and does not just apply to harassment of women alone. 

The act states that the responsibilities and duties of the employer are to incorporate the necessary provisions relating to the prevention of sexual harassment into internal employment rules and create awareness on the issues and the implications of workplace sexual harassment.

If a case of sexual harassment surfaces at a workplace, the act requires the organization to make necessary arrangements for preventing the recurrence of sexual harassment, provide the victims with the necessary psychological treatment, make an arrangement for the victims to complain anonymously and provide information to the victims on the procedure of filing of complaints.

In the case of government offices, according to Junu Bhattarai, court officer at Kathmandu District Court, complaints of any kind have to be lodged in the “Gunaso Byabassthapan Sakha” which is a part of the administrative branch in government offices. 

“There is no specified committee in place for cases of sexual harassment that may occur in the workplace,” she reveals. 

Other than that, other external bodies like the National Women’s Commission, Chief District Office, Women, Children, and Senior Citizen Service Center within the Nepal Police are where one can report instances of sexual harassment. The external bodies apply to both government and non-government employees. 

The laws and procedures against sexual harassment of a particular office or organization aside, the government has also set an external complaint handling authority that can punish anyone who is proven guilty of sexual harassment at work. 

Under the 2015 Act, any person who has committed sexual harassment may be imprisoned for up to six months, and/or slapped a fine of up to Rs 50,000. These punishments cannot be acted out by the office or organization where the harassment occurred but by an external body which, in the case of workplace harassment, is the Chief District Officer (CDO) at the concerned district. 

Moreover, the external complaint handling authority may also require the person who has committed sexual harassment under the act to provide compensation to the victim for any physical or mental harm caused as well as the actual expenses incurred by the victim in the course of filing and defending his/her complaint. 

Pranita Acharya, who looks after corporate affairs at IMS group, says she feels very safe at her office as she works in an all-female department and that doesn’t leave much room for any kind of misbehavior. However, she does think that people should be given a session (just after or before starting their work) to brief them on how to behave at office as well as where to report if a case of sexual harassment were to occur. “There is a need for awareness regarding sexual harassment laws inside and outside office in Nepal,” she says.

Both Bhattarai and Paudel agree with Acharya’s sentiment about workspaces needing to have a meeting or a class to make its staff aware about sexual harassment and its repercussions. This could go a long way in making people understand that sexual harassment isn’t something that will be taken lightly. “That way the victim will not feel helpless about the situation, especially if the harasser is in a position of power,” concludes Paudel.

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