“My childhood dream was to become a teacher. When this dream became a reality, I had high hopes to reach my goals and contribute to my country. But instead, I had to constantly endure sexual harassment from a co-worker. All this was because I was a woman. My dreams were shattered, and my job became [...]

Business Times

Sexual harassment at work keeps women away from the workforce


“My childhood dream was to become a teacher. When this dream became a reality, I had high hopes to reach my goals and contribute to my country. But instead, I had to constantly endure sexual harassment from a co-worker. All this was because I was a woman. My dreams were shattered, and my job became unbearable”.

Sexual harassment creates unacceptable working conditions for women. It is a criminal offence under section 345 of the penal code in Sri Lanka. Yet, it happens every day, and this is the reality of many working women in the country.

Pervasive and persistent issue across different sectors

Irrespective of income or social status, job sector or role, women continue to face sexual harassment in different forms by co-workers or those in positions of authority, often with no formal mechanisms to report or handle these cases.

“When I made a formal complaint, it only made things worse. I had to re-live that experience repeatedly. The blame was shifted to me, and I was faced with disciplinary inquiries”. [Teacher, Survivor]

Deterrent for women’s labour force
participation and economic

While sexual harassment is not limited to women, global data shows that an overwhelming majority of victims are women.

In 2020, only 32 per cent of Sri Lankan women were part of the labour force, in comparison to 72 per  cent of men. There are many reasons for this. However, sexual harassment is one of the many forms of gender-based violence and discrimination that deter women from meaningfully participating at work. It undermines their choice on whether or which sectors to enter and whether to pursue senior or managerial roles, affects performance and productivity at work, and significantly impacts their ability to fulfill their true potential.    “This was once a childhood dream, but I ended up questioning everything I wanted in terms of my career. Many women become helpless. They end up leaving their jobs or stay on for the sake of it – because they have no choice”. [Teacher, Survivor]

Gender inequalities; addressing the root causes

Environments which allow sexual harassment and other types of gender-based violence to prevail largely stem from discriminatory attitudes.

“If I told my family that I was sexually harassed, they wouldn’t focus on getting justice, but on getting me to leave my job. That’s just how our society is. It is assumed that this is normal from men and that women must protect themselves alone – even if it means leaving work. So much is underpinned by social norms about who men and women are, and what they “normally” do or “should do”. [Lawyer, Survivor]

Behaviour or words which disrespect women and others based on their gender, and responses which trivialise or justify gender-based violence including sexual harassment, play a key role in perpetuating a culture of violence within the workforce. Fostering a culture where people treat each other as equals – with respect and dignity, is essential to changing attitudes.

Creating safer working conditions: towards implementing laws
and policies

Globally, at-least 140 countries, including in Sri Lanka, have laws on sexual harassment in the workplace. This is seconded by international law, such as the Violence and Harassment Convention (2019). However, while laws and policies exist, this does not mean they are always implemented and enforced. This holds true for workplaces as well. Many workplaces have inadequate formal mechanisms to handle complaints. However, where mechanisms for confidential reporting and accountability do exist, survivors are empowered to regain control of the situation and to continue to safely engage in the workplace.

“At first, I did not feel comfortable talking about it with anyone at work. As time went by, more of my co-workers were faced with similar situations, and our HR introduced a new code of conduct and reached out to us individually, encouraging us to speak up – having the reassurance that my complaint was being handled confidentially made me feel safer to talk about it. Eventually the perpetrators were removed from the workplace and that has made me feel safer about continuing my work as normal”. [Lawyer, Survivor]

Creating a workplace culture free of sexual harassment begins by getting the highest level of management involved and ensuring that policies and procedures are in place, and trainings are conducted for all employees to ensure a culture of zero tolerance towards any form of harassment.

Eliminating gender-based violence in the workplace is central to women’s rights and national development

Gender-based violence is an attack on gender equality and survivors’ sense of self and safety. Parallelly, it is important to remember that women’s full engagement in the workforce is vital for sustainable development. For the full empowerment of women and sustainable national development, gender-based violence including sexual harassment in the workplace must be adequately prevented and addressed. Sexual harassment is a violation of Sri Lanka’s criminal law and international law. It is also a fundamental human right that everyone has the right to live and work free from violence and harassment. Until we see this in practice, we will never be able to reach full and sustainable social and economic development.

"This article – based on true accounts of women’s experiences – is part of a public campaign to raise awareness on the pervasive issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and its impact on women’s economic empowerment. A collaboration between UN Women and the EU in Sri Lanka for 16 days of activism against gender-based violence". 

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