Two words were said around the world to fight against sexual harassment and assault: Me Too. Those two words began a campaign that also reached the European Parliament putting on the table the fact that sexual harassment also affects the women that work in the European Institutions. ‘It was an open secret, but it was hidden. Nobody can be surprised’ says Angela Vallina, Member of the European Parliament that supported the campaign #MeToo. “We need men, without them would be impossible”, Angela Vallina adds.
94 per cent of women have been subjected to sexist behavior in the workplace and around one in ten has suffered physical aggression; according to the study ‘My experience of sexism’ of Jump -an enterprise that works with organizations in order to promote gender equality. During the last few months, several female MEPs have shared their experiences of sexual harassment at work.
‘We need men to support us. Men are just realizing that it is a problem that also affects them as well. I will always encourage them to help and reflect what kind of position they have and what they can do to change this atmosphere’ Terry says.
‘In the debate related to sexual harassment at the EP there were less than 50 people in the Parliament and only around 5 of them were men’, Angela says.
The proposal of the European Parliament´s Committee on Women´s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) is to have and independent body that would give special advice to the victims with a clear protocol; an ethical code for the staff and education in values that could define what is and what is not an harassment.
What is understood as harassment?
There is not a clear line that divides what is and what is not harassment. The European Institute of Gender Equality has defined sexual harassment as unwanted acts of different nature that have a purpose or effect of violating the victim´s dignity.
‘For me, harassment is everything that someone can say or do that creates an uncomfortable environment’ Angela Vallina defines, ‘there are some men that don´t say anything to you, but the way that they look or they say something, they are telling you everything’.
JUMP’s study shows that 75 per cent of women have received comments about what are they wearing or should wear.
‘A sexist comment, unless really offensive or a threat, won’t lead to a legal investigation. From the EP- we always say that we need to have legal instruments to fight against sexual harassment and any violence; but we also need to have a conversation about what can be acceptable in terms of sexist remarks and comments’, adds Terry Reintke, a MEP that also declared having being sexually harassed.
With these facts a question arises: Is the European Union doing enough against sexual assault?
‘No. Sometimes it is looking the other way’ Angela answers, ‘you can say what you like on paper, but if you don´t put it into practice it is useless’ she adds.
The formal procedure that the EP has to report sexual harassment is going in front of the anti-harassment Committee which consists of members of the Parliament. ‘But we have seen that this procedure doesn´t properly work because many victims of sexual harassment reported that they don´t feel comfortable with going to a Committee that consists of MEPs because they assume that they have loyalty to their colleagues’ says Terry. ‘It was asked to a MEP: if you would know that your colleague is harassing somebody, would you report it? And he answered: No’ Angela adds.
‘The revelation that we saw were cases of harassment when victims didn´t go to this committee because they felt shame or frightened to lose their jobs and some of them left. So the consequences were for the victims and not for the abuser’ adds Terry, ‘It has to be clear that we have to protect the victims and see consequences for the abuser’.
What are the changes suggested?
‘We don´t want to criticize the work of the Committee, but apparently when it comes to sexual harassment, more should be done’, Terry adds, ‘we also need to create an atmosphere where people feel ready to talk about this kind of experience and we live in a society when this is not the case, especially at work. If you work in an institution as the EP it´s very hard for people to come up with this kind of experience’.
‘All the women should join in order to fight for our rights without taking into account the ideology of our parties. We will vote different in areas such economy or agriculture because each of us have our own ideas, but in this issue there cannot be ideologies’ Angela says.
What were the reactions to the #MeToo campaign?
‘The campaign #MeToo meant a moment of wake up, it has had an effect in society’ says Alazne Irigoien, Project Manager of JUMP.
Terry says that the campaign generated a lot of reactions and two of them were: ‘The first was related to the women that reported anonymously that if they don´t want to give their names is because it is not true or there is something weird about the story or have something to hide. And the second one is that if they speak up and say their names they only want the media attention’. So those reactions ‘created a situation where is impossible for people to speak up anyway’, adds Terry.
Around 70 per cent of people have witnessed sexist behavior in the work place the JUMP report shows but 63 per cent said that they were not helped or supported by witnesses.
What do the victims suffer?
‘When you suffer sexual harassment your work environment doesn´t feel safe anymore’ says Terry, ‘many of the people that have experienced sexual harassment at work eventually leave. And if they stay, in the long run they can have psychological consequences’.
For both Terry and Angela, one of the most sensible sectors of the EP was the assistants. They are hired by trust by the MEPs, so it´s easier for them to lose their job or ‘having this image that they attach to you that you don´t understand fun, you just misunderstood…’ adds Terry.
Also, Angela adds that in some cases the ones that do the harassment are from the same political party and their own party can create pressure in order to avoid scandals.
Between the consequences for the victims is also the label “victim” that is created around the woman that has suffered sexual harassment. Terry says that ‘just because you have been a victim of sexual harassment doesn´t make you a “victim” or a weak person’, she also adds that ‘a politician is supposed to be strong and powerful, so speaking up about experiences with sexual harassment can make you think that would create a “victim” reputation around you. But what I have experienced sharing was totally opposite, so I would encourage people to speak about this’.
Is it related to values in education?
The report of JUMP showed that in general, both men and women consider sexism less important than other important issues such as racism or xenophobia.
Terry says that ‘we have an educational system where we teach stereotypes: boys only play with lorries and girls with princesses and pink stuff. We have to question classical femininity where the woman is only caring, stays at home and takes care of children. But we also need to challenge masculinity’.
Izaskun Bilbao, a MEP member of the Committee of Women Rights and Gender Equality also says that ‘if we think about ourselves we can identify behaviors that make us think about how we have internalized some unequal values and codes’.
Alazne adds that ‘it´s important to avoid sexist comments and react against them. But not only the responsibility is women´s but also men´s. We have to work on a group level in order to support the victims’.
The key that all of them gives to avoid the harassment is working on equality. Around the 90 per cent of the reported cases were women so the inequality is shown through that. A sexist atmosphere is for all of them could more easily lead to sexual harassment.
What is the EP doing in broad terms?
To solve the problem of sexual harassment in broad terms; first the EP has to solve the problem that they have inside their own institutions. But they already have proposals in which they are working on in order to stop sexual harassment.
‘There are two points that we want to attack. What are we doing in the EP? With a list of proposals: independent experts, recommendations, confidentiality, training… And then comes the broad question’ Terry says, ‘and here comes where the Istanbul convention is important, create a directive to fight the violence against women’. The Istanbul convention says that the own State has to take measures to prevent violence against women, protect them and prosecute the perpetrators.
‘We want a directive that would be mandatory for all the Member States with a clear structure to fight the violence against women’ says Angela, ‘there are some Member States that have already signed and ratified it, but if you don´t really work on it, train the judges… it´s useless’.
Terry also adds, ‘I want to see a change in the structures that we have. We still live in a society which is very sexist where women don´t have the same opportunities as men. And I think that sexual harassment and violence is one of the symbols of this kind of society being very present in our lives’.