Why is there a culture of shame when it comes to speaking out about harassment?

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Countless women have come forward in the last few weeks accusing the Hollywood producer star, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual assault and rape; Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow being amongst them. The Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson has claimed that these kinds of sexual harassment stories in the Hollywood industry are in fact “endemic” and that Weinstein is simply the top of the ladderof an industry plagued with this issue. The news is a stark reminder of the issues prevalent in the film industry – harassment being at the top of the list, and that we need to have a serious discussion about how society treats both the perpetrators and their victims.

However, the incidents we have heard about in the last week are not exclusive to the Hollywood film industry. A 2015 survey found that one in three women between the ages of 18-34 have encountered some form of sexual harassment at work, with only a mere 29% reporting it. The figures here highlight a continuing culture of shame surrounding speaking out about these issues, which has arguably only allowed it to continue as perpetrators get away with being brought to justice. Many may ask – why don’t women report their experience? They do. A TUC report found that around 80% women thought that reporting the incident was of no benefit, with around 16% claiming the situation actually got worse. So why aren’t women being listened to, and their claims being taken seriously? Feminist activist Beatrix Campbell claims that it’s due to the “knowledge of and tolerance of sexual harassment”, whereby women have come to accept such experiences as a part and parcel of being in the workplace; where their complaints have all too often fallen on deaf ears. But this is the root of the problem. This culture has enabled harassment to go ignored because there have not been any major efforts to tackle the problem. Only recently, after a viral social media campaign, has France’s gender equality minister proposed a bill in the French parliament that would fine street harassment and aggressive catcalls.

The #MeToo campaign which has taken off on social media recently has aimed to tackle the culture of shame surrounding speaking out, encouraging victims of abuse to share their stories in highlighting how prevalent the issue still is in society today.

The campaign has gone a long way in removing the shame and silence that has been normal for those at the receiving end of sexual harassment. Victims of abuse now feel empowered to tell their story and remind others that they are not alone and that their experiences do not define them nor will they determine their future. Subsequently the #ItWasMe campaign started, with men ackonwledging their past sexually inappropriate behaviours and endeavouring to raise awareness about problemtic behaviour, whether it be coming from themselves or witnessing it in the people around them.

A few days ago, more instances of sexual harassment have come to light as a Tory Minister and MP have been accused of “paying women off” in attempting to keep Westminster as far away as possible from the topic of scandal and misdemeanor that it has previously been associated with. It is shocking to learn that around 40 Conservative MP’s have been listed in a ‘dirty dossier’, and it does much to highlight that this is a persistent problem which needs to be effectively addressed if any change is to occur and take place.

Perhaps much of the shame surrounding speaking out about the experiences of harassment has much to do with the way in which we have dealt with perpetrators, or even our lack of action regarding this. Women are not going to speak up and share their story if it is not going to make their situation better or help them seek justice. Famous Hollywood producers like Weinstein get their name all over the papers and more often than not have to resign due to the bad press they face once the allegations make headlines. But what about those not in the public eye – should they simply be left to accept things as they are and continue to put up with sexism in the workplace? Because if we don’t provide safe spaces for women to talk about their experiences, aren’t we just allowing the problem to get worse? In fact, worryingly, Tory MP’s have resisted attempts by David Cameron to make them sign a code of conduct; which would effectively safeguard those in the workplace agaisnt sexual harrasment, indicating that we have a long way to go in creating a culture that prioritises and recognises the importance of create a safe and comfortable environemnt in the workplace. At JAN Trust we believe in the importance of empowering women and ensuring they have the confidence and tools to combat any form of oppression be it in the work place or any other arena that discriminates against them.

About JAN Trust

JAN Trust (www.jantrust.org) is a multi award winning not for profit organisation formed in the late 1980′s. We are based in London and cater for women and youth from disadvantaged and marginalised communities. Our work and services are delivered locally, nationally and internationally. Our aim is to create positive and active citizens of society by educating, empowering and encouraging women and youth. We are dedicated to the cause of combating poverty, discrimination, abuse and social exclusion among Black, Asian, minority ethnic, refugee and asylum seeking (BAMER) women. JAN Trust is making a real difference in improving the lives of communities; promoting human and women's rights as well as community cohesion. We provide a range of services and our work has been recognised by a variety of dignitaries. Check out our website for statements from some of our supporters: http://www.jantrust.org/what-people-say
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