Allanah Colley: Engaging with the UN from afar

Earlier this year, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference in New York thanks to AYLI. 

Since then, my eyes have been opened to how we can still engage with the United Nations and international community from afar.  Just this week, I prepared an oral statement which (despite technical difficulties) was read to the United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at its 70th session in Geneva.

The statement discusses sexual harassment and encourages the CEDAW Committee to hold the New Zealand Government to account for failing to prevent and respond to the behaviour, which is rife in our workplaces.

My statement is reproduced below.

We pride ourselves on being a country that stands up for gender equality.  Yet, in this statement, I will address the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and bullying in New Zealand and our Government’s failure to prevent and respond to this.

Sexual harassment breaches Articles 5(a) and 11(1)(f) of CEDAW. This behaviour and the cultures that allow it to flourish are rooted in prejudice against women. It breaches our right to safety in our workplaces.

Every day New Zealand women continue to experience sexual harassment and bullying in our workplaces that regularly goes unnoticed, unreported and ignored.  In New Zealand’s most recent periodic report to this Committee and the issues paper on New Zealand from the Committee, there is no mention of sexual harassment in our workplaces specifically and the effect this has on women and other minorities.

There is insufficient data about how prevalent sexual harassment is. However, over the last ten years, independent reviews and inquiries have found this behaviour to be rife in various industries, including the New Zealand Police, Defence Force, the Human Rights Commission, the medical profession, the legal profession and one large, national law firm in particular. In my own profession, 40 per cent of female lawyers, and 55 per cent of female lawyers under the age of 30, have been sexually harassed in the last five years. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Recently, the New Zealand Law Society President described sexual harassment and bullying as “a serious and systemic cultural problem in our profession.”

Yes, there are laws prohibiting sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is unlawful under the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Employment Relations Act 2000. The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2014 makes sexual comments or behaviour in digital form unlawful.

However, the Government has not effectively enforced these laws. And each profession has been left to deal with the issue themselves. Employers need to be held accountable for these unsafe workplaces by existing regulatory bodies and government agencies, but they are not currently. There are no structural supports or incentives to respond to this issue. There is no accountability.

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, now more than ever, it is time this problem was finally treated as a gender equality issue.

We wish to recommend that:

  1. The Government and employers are held to account for failing to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces.  This is a breach of articles 5(a) and 11(1)(f) of CEDAW.

  2. In future, this Committee requires the Government to report on what measures it is taking to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in New Zealand workplaces.

Tēnā rawa atu koe. Thank you.

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on July 11, 2018 and filed under CSW62 2018.