Do you know how to identify sexual harassment in the workplace?

Almost every woman, trans or non-binary person you know can, unfortunately, tell you about an experience in which they have been a victim of gender-based violence – from being catcalled to sexual assault. If you are a woman, trans or non-binary person yourself, this is most likely not news to you. 

Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG)  is embedded in our society’s patriarchal structure in which men have traditionally controlled the power. It is present in all the spheres of our lives, especially in our relationships – whether they are with family members, partners or colleagues. It affects all of us, but its effects can be more harmful for those who are part of minority groups (migrants, women of colour, LGBTQ+, undocumented people, etc.). 

Sexual harassment is a form of VAWG which may also occur in the workplace.

It can manifest itself in sexist practices, ranging from “casual” and seemingly harmless habits – such as a joke or a gesture – to sexual assault and even feminicide – the killing of a woman on the basis of her gender. Certain behaviours have become so normalised that, sometimes, we fail to recognize that they are acts of violence.  

So, what is sexual harassment in the workplace?      

It is any unwelcome sexual behaviour that creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating working environment and which has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a worker.

To better understand the presence of these elements, you should also take into account that: 

  • A sexual behaviour may comprise physical, verbal, and non-verbal conducts (e.g., texts and images);
  • It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator alleges they didn’t intend to make the victim feel uncomfortable; 
  • Free and valid consent is key in any adult sexual contact;
  • The victim doesn’t need to have a written contract from their employer to receive protection;
  • When one’s dignity is affected, it may lead to feelings of shame, humiliation, fear, frustration, vulnerability; and
  • A hostile environment may be intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive.

Can you recognise sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be a serious incident of sexual assault, but it can also be a less obvious conduct which makes you uncomfortable. It may be sexual comments or jokes about yourself or a colleague; physical behaviour, including unwelcome sexual advances – such as touching, hugging or kissing, and various forms of sexual assault. It also includes displaying pictures, photos or drawings of a sexual nature – such as circulating  pornography, by email or WhatsApp, or having pictures of naked/semi-naked women in the workplace. It could be, as well, requests or demands for sexual favours, or even leering or staring inappropriately. 

If you are unsure whether you have been a victim of sexual harassment, or you want to protect yourself or a colleague from it,  you can ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Have I been exposed to a conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace coming from a superior or colleague? 
  2. Has such behaviour been undesired and/or unrequested by me? 
  3. Has such behaviour affected my dignity as a person?
  4. Has the situation created a hostile environment in my workplace?

It is important to know that sexual harassment in the workplace, and other forms of abuse of power and VAWG, are illegal – most of them punishable by law. The UK has a legal system containing rules that protect you from these behaviours, and that enshrine your rights, especially those ensuring you can live your life with dignity and free of violence.

You can promote the prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace, by requesting your employer to have a clear, comprehensive policy in place against sexual harassment. In case of an alleged sexual harassment case, this policy will alert all parties to their rights, roles and responsibilities. It should also set out how to promptly and efficiently deal with a sexual      harassment claim.

If you think that you or a friend or colleague have been victim of sexual harassment in the      workplace, you can contact your Union’s Women Officer and/ or representative. They can guide you on what to do next. You can also contact specialist organisations such as the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS), through our Helpline 0808- 145-4909 or by email: info@lawrs.org.uk.      

If the harassment is very serious, it might also be a crime. If a colleague or supervisor has sexually assaulted you or made physical threats, or you are worried about your safety, you can contact the police or the National Health Service (NHS). You have a right to ask for an interpreter when you speak to them.

Always remember that you are not alone, and that it is not your fault.


Family courts and migrant women 

In 2019, LAWRS and the Step Up Migrant Women campaign published The Right to be Believed, accounting for the barriers that prevent victims with insecure immigration status from reporting abuse to the police. Among the multiple testimonies collected for the report, Katia* told us that her perpetrator 'inch by inch used the system', referring to how he used the knowledge he had of the system to prolong the abuse towards her. From our frontline work, we know that the way perpetrators exploit their knowledge of the system to abuse women is present at every stage of a victims' pathway to safety, including accessing the family justice system.

The Harm Report published in 2020 found that four main overarching barriers negatively shape the responses and outcomes for victims of domestic abuse when accessing the family courts system: resource constraints, pro-contact culture, working in silos and an adversarial system. For migrant women, these barriers are magnified by structural inequalities. They encounter multiple and overlapping obstacles to accessing redress such as discrimination, racism, hostile policies, lack of knowledge of their rights when attending court, and difficulties understanding the complexity of the legal system in the UK.

LAWRS’ service users often feel that the family courts are an extension of the abuse they sought to escape when leaving perpetrators. They feel disempowered in a system that they perceive as undermining their experiences of domestic abuse, does not provide them with tools to defend themselves in court on equal grounds, and denies them their right to live free from violence. In many cases, migrant women are discriminated against because of protected characteristics and because of their immigration status. As detailed in the Harm Report, this situation is particularly acute in the resolution of custody and child contact arrangements, as evidenced by cases of migrant women who lose custody of their children to their perpetrators, despite the allegations of domestic abuse.

 

Access to information and rights 

A critical barrier for abused migrant women in accessing justice is the lack of understanding of the system. As part of the cycles of abuse, migrant victims are isolated and given false information about their rights. This limited access to information is critical because it prevents them from knowing their entitlement to provisions they can access when entering the family court system.

For migrant women whose first language is not English, language barriers play a significant obstacle in accessing justice. In combination with the lack of understanding of the system, women might not be aware of their right to access interpreters, a situation that puts victims in a disadvantaged position when opposing perpetrators that speak English. Moreover, even in cases where women request interpreters, these are not provided. 

Recently, we supported Laura* and her child, who were denied help by the police and the local authority because of their insecure immigration status. After she fled her household, the perpetrator took her to family court. During the first emergency hearing, she was not provided with an interpreter, despite the request made by her caseworker. As a result, she did not have a real chance to make her case and adequately disclose the abuse she and her child have been subjected to. In contrast, her perpetrator had no issue in expressing himself in court. Furthermore, this situation negatively affected Laura's mental well-being. She felt utterly vulnerable as she did not understand any of the allegations the perpetrator made against her. 

In addition, the judge centred the session on questioning Laura about her immigration status and whether she was applying to regularise it. The judge did not consider that Laura's irregular status is a consequence of her perpetrator's coercive and controlling behaviour, who refused to make an application for Laura and her child. This is a clear example of the adversarial system migrant women subjected to abuse experience when accessing the family courts. Furthermore, it illustrates how the lack of a gender perspective within the justice system can obstruct the understanding of a case and negatively impact those who are already at a disadvantage.

 

Court system as an extension of abuse

Our evidence shows that perpetrators further exert coercion and control through the family courts. This is related to the adversarial nature of the system that forces women to face perpetrators under uneven conditions. The complexity of navigating the court system is compounded by the difficulties in accessing legal aid for victims of abuse. In a number of cases, our service users have had to represent themselves despite their vulnerability, owing to imposed structural barriers and the effects of having endured abuse for extended periods of time. 

Cuts to legal aid and the increased restrictions to access it have had a significant impact on migrant victims who, as mentioned above, are usually unaware of the way the legal system operates in the UK in contrast to perpetrators having the upper hand in knowing the system better than women and therefore using this as an advantage to manipulate the system in their favour.

Maria* endured more than 7 years of multiple forms of abuse. In 2020, she lost custody of her child. Contrary to Maria, who did not manage to have legal representation due to the difficulties of accessing legal aid, her perpetrator had the means to pay for a solicitor to represent him at court. Maria came to our service asking for support as she felt her voice was not heard and the abuse exerted towards her was not considered when giving custody of her child to her perpetrator. 

Furthermore, as the Harm report shows, our service users face threats of being taken to court, exposing them to further victimisation, as their vulnerabilities are not taken into consideration. 

Luisa* came to our service as her perpetrator used the family court as a tool to continue abusing her. He often took her to court accusing her of harassment when she raised concerns about anything related to their child. He also made false allegations against Maria’s mental health and accused her of parental alienation.

 

Undermining of domestic abuse in family courts 

The Harm Report shone a light on the difficulties that victims face in their experiences of domestic abuse being considered when the family courts make decisions such as child contact arrangements. The evidence that informed the report shows the way that domestic abuse is minimised and not properly considered in family courts. In the case of migrant women, our experience shows that in a number of cases frontline professionals and judges focus their interventions on denying support or questioning women's legal status rather than treating them as victims first and foremost. Resulting from hostile environment policies, migrant victims are seen first as potential immigration offenders who are “playing the system”. As a result of this narrative, migrant victims are punished and disbelieved despite the fact that in many cases their irregular status is a consequence of the abuse they experience. 

 

Pro-contact culture 

In cases where the women we support manage to retain the custody of their children, abuse is further exerted through child contact arrangements. This situation worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic when perpetrators exploited lockdowns to extend abuse to victims through child contact. We agree with the report findings showing that priority on ensuring contact with the non-resident parent can risk the wellbeing of victims and children. 

Since the beginning of the first lockdown, Ana*, who held custody of her child, has experienced emotional and psychological abuse through child contact. As the pandemic worsened, Ana worried that the lack of care from her perpetrator could impact her and her child's health as he did not take any measures to protect himself from the virus. Lately, he refused to share his new address with her, despite taking her child with him. Ana is scared to take him back to the family courts as he has threatened her with challenging the custody of the child if they go back to the family court, as he is a UK citizen. As the case portrays, the pro-contact culture represents a risk of extended abuse and risk of neglect of children from perpetrators. 

 

Conclusion

In general, family courts have been shown not to be spaces in which migrant victims feel safe and can access justice. Victims with insecure immigration status are continuously told by perpetrators that they will be disbelieved and that any intervention will be focused on their legal status. This fear is not unfounded, as the evidence presented here shows. Imposed structural barriers play a critical role in aggravating the negative experiences of migrant women. 

 

*Names have been changed 


LAWRS statement on the "New Plan for Immigration"

LAWRS statement on the "New Plan for Immigration"

We have responded to the government’s consultation on the “New Plan for Immigration”. LAWRS holds a long-standing tradition and history upholding the rights of asylum seekers, refugee and migrant women. We are disturbed by the proposals included in this ‘New Immigration Plan’ and the lack of compassion in its approach to ensure people seeking asylum are protected from further victimisation. We are concerned to see that lessons from the Windrush scandal and its review have not been learned, despite the commitments from the government and the Home Office to put ‘people first’ and have a more compassionate approach towards immigration.

LAWRS agrees that the UK asylum system must be reformed to better support people seeking protection, but we oppose the proposals as we do not believe they can lead to a fair asylum system. We believe they threaten the very right to seek asylum in the UK, they will make life harder for those people who do claim asylum here and put people seeking safety more at risk.

We oppose this “New Plan for Immigration” because we believe it will criminalise and punish vulnerable people seeking asylum, including women and children fleeing dire living conditions who have already experienced high levels of abuse and trauma. We are disturbed by the Plan and its lack of evidence to sustain the actual effectiveness of these proposals.

In the last decade, the government has put in place new rules on immigration without considering the negative impacts that they would have on equality and the wellbeing of highly vulnerable groups of people such as victims of VAWG, modern slavery and trafficking. As a frontline organisation supporting migrant women experiencing abuse, exploitation and hardship, we come across the damaging effects of immigration policies and changes on immigration law on extremely vulnerable women and children on a daily basis.

While the government could have used this opportunity to conduct a widespread consultation both with people with lived experience and experts in the field, they have chosen to make this process too quick and complex, and the questions too misleading, to achieve any meaningful results. We are concerned about the lack of opportunities that asylum seekers with lived experience of the UK system will have to participate and engage with this process. This exclusion extends to the fact that the consultation is only available online and in English. Furthermore, the platform and the way the consultation is structured are highly confusing, with minimal opportunities to give substantial feedback as many of the questions are highly misleading and based on assumptions that are not backed up by evidence.

In conclusion, we strongly believe that a fair immigration system should be built on human rights, safety and dignity foundations for everyone who claims asylum in the UK in order to allow asylum seekers and refugees the support needed to rebuild their lives, regardless of their route of entry.

Read LAWRS full response to the consultation here.

Contact: dolores@lawrs.org.uk, elizabeth@lawrs.org.uk


Sin Fronteras: This is who we are

Sin Fronteras, the girls and young women project at the Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) is launching its latest video:
This is who we are, Sin Fronteras. Voices of Young Latin American Migrant Women in London.

This video was created by the young participants of Sin Fronteras, in collaboration with Fotosynthesis, to amplify their voices and to share their message of social justice, gender equality, anti-racism and recognition of the Latin American community in the United Kingdom.

The video is a celebration of our diversity, identities and cultures; a wake-up call for decision-makers to act; and an invitation to other youth groups, feminists, and minority communities, to join forces and support us in our role as agents of change in the British society.

You can watch the video here:

Our voices, our message

Our voices are those of young Latin American migrant women in London.

We come from different countries in Latin America. We speak Spanish, Portuguese, and also English. We are black, white, mestizo, indigenous, we are diverse.

We live in London and our experiences and realities are different. We love this city, we belong to it, and day by day we contribute to its construction and development. We live here and we also matter, we live here, and we are Londoners too.

Our Latin American community has a lot to contribute to British society. We study, we work, we participate, we take care of others. We are active citizens, and we want our identity, diversity, feminism and contributions to be recognised.

We raise our voices to be recognised in this which is also our city.

This is who we are, Sin Fronteras.

                                     Sin Fronteras’ participants.

Join us

If you are a Latin American young woman between 14 and 21 years old living in London, and want to participate in our Sin Fronteras group please fill in our online Google Form, or contact the Sin Fronteras Coordinator, Melissa Munz: 07802 645001 / melissa@lawrs.org.uk