Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal hit Hollywood, 1.7 million women and men worldwide have gone public with their own stories of sexual harassment or voiced support for victims under the #metoo hashtag, or the more forceful French version, #balancetonporc (dump your pig).
More recently, media reports have exposed a “culture of silence” surrounding sexual harassment in Brussels. Silence in the sense of ‘covering up’ but also of ‘being afraid to
Apparently, there are MEPs and staffers in EU institutions who think it’s ok to stalk their assistants and interns, corner them and make sexist jokes.
They abuse their position of power and get away with acting inappropriately or saying degrading things to much younger women and men who depend on them financially and for career progression.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani quickly pointed to an internal committee tasked with investigating the reports – but only 10 cases have been brought to its attention since 2014.
Committee member Catherine Bearder (ALDE, UK) highlighted how victims are reluctant to come forward “because disclosure is a financial and professional risk for them. We don’t see the full extent of cases.”
And when victims do report, there is no information on the outcome of those cases, because such allegations are treated as an ‘internal affair’.
Shocked MEPs have said this week that allegations went beyond what they imagined. Today they held a debate calling for stricter sanctions against perpetrators and for stronger guarantees for victims. Tomorrow they will vote on a resolution, including the proposal for special safeguards and fully fledged investigations.
In the Commission, where a different system is in place involving a helpline and strong protection for whistleblowers, 13 members of staff on average request assistance on cases of inappropriate behaviour every year, and disciplinary sanctions were taken in 30% of cases.
Today, EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström told MEPs they could perhaps “do more on an informal basis”.
This seems like a vague piece of advice but it gets to the heart of the issue. The Parliament is an international place of work. People come from across the EU, where gender norms vary widely and the line of what is inappropriate behaviour is drawn differently.
Yet the argument of “blurred lines” cannot be used to justify making other people uncomfortable on the basis of cultural differences.
Deep down, everyone knows whether a comment/joke was truly well-intended or whether it had a macho aftertaste and was met with strained embarrassed smiles. The same is even more apparent for body language or touching.
An often-heard argument is that over-sensitive feminists are forcing men to self-censor in front of them – and then the locker-room talk simply carries on when there are no women present. This doesn’t help.
To some extent, it is precisely this lack of dialogue that gave rise to Trump’s ‘pussy grabbing’ talk. What’s even worse, many have tacitly endorsed or even admired him for it.
It simply pits women – who are often exasperated and lack the patience to explain why a certain joke really isn’t that funny – against men, most of whom simply haven’t been exposed to what it is like to be on the receiving end of constant comments, whistling, or something worse.
The result? Of more than 40 MEPs registered to speak, only five were men. We are still faced with a culture where sexual harassment is a women’s issue.
Sexual harassment happens everywhere and knows no borders. More than one in three women experienced some form of gender-based violence according to the UN. In the EU, 43% of women experienced violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and one in 10 girls and young women experienced harassment online.
On the one hand, we need safeguards in place for victims to speak out and cases to be thoroughly looked into. On the other, we need to involve those who feel this debate is alien to them (read: most men) to make sure that we foster dialogue and not self-censorship.
If anything, we need to talk more, not less. The resolution in Parliament is just the first step.
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Former Europe minister and conservative French MEP Alain Lamassoure quits his party, the conservative Les Républicains, citing its “race to the most conservative right”.
The UK’s Brexit boss, David Davis, was questioned by Westminster MPs. He claimed “Czechoslovakia doesn’t currently have a government”. We think he is right but we’ll have to check with the Prussian and Yugoslavian authorities first.
Look out for…
MEPs announce the winner of the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought tomorrow.
Views are the author’s