With better late that never in mind, the Saudi cabinet has finally passed the ‘Protection Against Abuse’ law few days ago. A one cannot help but wonder, is it enough?
The law seems to encompass so many flavors in one package; it deals with domestic violence, violence against children, and sexual harassment both in public and in workplace. Covering a huge scape like that, it is no surprise that the law comes across as both vague and drowned in generalities. Reading through its articles would leave you still thirsty for more! Check out these posts for more details (this one in English, and this one in Arabic).
One of the law’s objectives that I want to highlight here is the protection against workplace sexual harassment; the elephant in the room that many Saudi organizations like to pretend it just does not exist.
After being marginalized for so long, Saudi women are coming to claim their rightful place in the work market. And with such transition comes many challenges; social and organizational, and one of those challenges is sexual harassment.
One would assume that we could build on the experience of the organizations which already have a huge percentage of women in its workforce like banks and hospitals; the sad truth is, there is no much to learn. They might have nicely written policies and guidelines, but when it comes to enforcing these policies, it’s another story altogether.
The nature of sexual harassment itself makes it a very delicate crime to spot, report, and punish. Most of its victims, mostly women, find it really hard to come forward and report it; they fear publicity, company’s and coworkers’ reaction, the ability to prove it, and the lack of whistle blowing protection practices. In a recent poll by HuffPost, 13% of respondents reported being harassed by a superior, and 19% harassed by another coworker; 70% of those harassed did NOT report the incident.
And if it is hard to report sexual harassment in a socially open country, imagine how it would be for a Saudi woman who lived and raised in a segregated society, and has been asked throughout her life to keep a low profile and worry to death about her reputation.
After all that, will the new law help in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace? My answer is … not necessarily! If the organizations are not willing to deal with the responsibilities they have toward their female employees, the situation is not expected to enhance much.
The way out starts with the organizations strengthen their own internal anti harassment polices, they could build upon and connect to this national law. Also, now it is a good opportunity, with the just law freshly out, for women to demand clearer policies against sexual harassment from their employers. And it would be also good from the Ministry of Labor to demand stricter policies against sexual harassment from all organizations employing women.
Once the rules are in place, education comes next. The workforce should be educated about sexual harassment policies and provided with safe channels to report any incidents.