Since last October, the #MeToo movement has brought international attention to the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the working lives of some of the highest paid women in the Global North—and the world. Less discussed is the prevalence of this problem in low-income countries and the barriers it presents to women seeking to enter and flourish in the labor market.
According to the United Nations, only 63 percent of women aged 25 to 54 are in the labor force globally, compared to 94 percent of men. Most women’s economic development efforts have focused on providing women with the money, education and skills that they need in order to participate on fairer terms in the labor market. But fewer initiatives have addressed the challenge of making sure that they participate on safer terms as well.
In the late 1980’s, I was researching Bangladesh’s emerging export-garment industry. This industry generated large numbers of factory jobs for young women in a country where the norms of female seclusion had previously confined most women to the home. One of the women I interviewed named Renu had recently joined the industry. She had been married to an abusive and irresponsible husband who beat her often, only went to work when he felt like it, and prohibited her from working herself.
Renu had hoped the birth of their first child would improve his behavior and her marriage. When it didn’t, she left with her child and joined a garment factory. When I asked her why it took her so long to leave her husband. “When I was married, even if I was not earning, at least I was with him,” she told me. “No one could say anything to me. Now, even if they say nothing, I feel afraid, I feel they might. That fear is always there. Don’t all women have this fear inside them? I am a woman on my own; I have to go to the bazaar, I have to go here, I have to go there; men stare at me, they pass comments. Don’t I feel the shame?”
Renu was expressing the fear and anxiety of sexual harassment that many women in Bangladesh face every day. Even a violent husband can offer some degree of protection. More than thirty years later, Renu’s words came back to haunt me as I wind up my current research. It seeks to understand why the majority of working women in Bangladesh remain concentrated in home-based, self-employed activities, despite widely publicized employment opportunities for women, such as garment manufacturing and micro-finance.
The research offers several explanations for this phenomenon, but one major finding stood out to us. Our quantitative findings told us that around 20 to 30 percent of women working outside the home had experienced sexual harassment. Our qualitative findings told us that many more women feared the possibility of sexual harassment—a fear that set narrow limits on the type of work they believed they could achieve in their lifetimes. The women we interviewed automatically ruled out many forms of work potentially available to them because it might expose them to a range of unwelcome behavior from men: from leering and lewd comments to more physical forms of harassment such as touching, grabbing and groping.
Parents in our study spoke of marrying off their daughters early because they worried that something might happen that would make their daughters unmarriageable. Young women spoke of dropping out of college because of unwelcome male attention at college campuses or nearby communities. Women working in construction or factories spoke of having to fend off groping hands of supervisors and male co-workers. Many women refused to work in the garment industry not because of low wages or poor working conditions, but because it required them to work alongside men.
The spread of a highly conservative form of Islam in Bangladesh has not helped. It has served to sharpen the perception that women who moved uncovered outside the shelter of the home are of an immoral character and can be blamed for encouraging lascivious behavior on the part of men. One factor contributing to increased veiling by women in Bangladesh is to demonstrate female virtue, and to minimize the likelihood of harassment when outside the home.
On International Women’s Day, let us remember that sexual harassment has profound implications on women’s lives, not only because it limits the work opportunities they consider to be available to them, but because it shapes so much of their life trajectories. Participation in paid work is the main way that women and men across the world look after their families, put food on the table and ensure a roof over their heads and an education for their children.
As long as sexual harassment is tolerated and those who perpetrate it can do so with impunity, women’s ability to earn a living for themselves and their families will be unfairly curtailed. Ending sexual harassment and fear of harassment must be made central to the global economic justice agenda for women.