Helal Uddin Ahmed :
Gender balance and removal of gender-based discriminations are keys to sustainable development and empowerment of the masses. Male and female workers are central to economic growth and women's participation is critical for the progress of developing nations like Bangladesh. Moreover, investments in women often yield multiple dividends in terms of helping improve the well-being of children, families and communities.
In Bangladesh, women's entry into the job markets, both in public and private sectors, is increasing day by day. However, female employees working in various sectors are often subjected to unwelcome and undesirable behaviour by their male colleagues or supervisors. At present, there exists no written code of conduct in Bangladesh regarding how male employees should behave with their female colleagues in any organization, although such codes and laws exist in many South and Southeast Asian countries including India and Malaysia. For example, there is a law in Malaysia has a code titled "Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace". Absence of such a code of conduct to prevent sexual harassment sometimes encourages male employees to behave inappropriately and make undesirable or unwarranted advances with their female colleagues or subordinates. Besides, male employees' ignorance of appropriate behaviour with female colleagues and subordinates may also cause such behaviour to occur. This situation is aggravated by the natural tendency of women to suppress information about men's improper behaviour and leave this kind of incidents unreported. Since balanced development of a country requires active and equal participation of both men and women in the workplace, introduction of a code of conduct, therefore, is an urgent necessity for creating an enabling working environment for all employees; this is likely to lead to a healthy working relationship, better team-work, as well as improved and enhanced performance cum productivity.
In such a backdrop, introduction of a code of conduct for the public and private sector employees of Bangladesh would sensitise and educate the male employees to behave properly with their female counterparts. At the same time, it is likely to encourage female employees to report undesirable behaviour to the relevant authorities. A code of conduct is expected to limit (if not entirely eliminate) the undesirable behaviour directed against women at workplaces.
Impacts of harassments in workplaces are never good as harassments undermine human dignity; which adversely affects the skills, attitudes, competence, capability, and enthusiasm of the workers; lowers the productivity and morale; destroys innovativeness and zeal and adversely affects the sense of ownership and belongingness at a particular office or job. Absence of a code of conduct may lead people to behave according to their own sweet will without considering the consequences.
Sexual harassment implies any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or physical communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature, or sexually demeaning attitude, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work-environment. It is an unacceptable behaviour in the workplace, including any interaction or situation linked to official activity outside the office. It is one of the biggest hurdles faced by working women. Harassment itself may be executed through abuse of authority by a supervisor or by somebody in power; by creating a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment; and through retaliation or revenge.
Article 10 of the constitution on participation of women in national life stipulates: "Steps shall be taken to ensure participation of women in all spheres of life". Article 27 on equality before law stipulates: "All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law". Article 28 (1) says: "The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth". Article 28 (2) says: "Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of state and of public life". Article 28 (3) says: "No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to any place of public entertainment or resort, or admission to any educational institution". Article 28 (4) stipulates: "Nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens".
On the other hand, Article 29 on Equality of Opportunity in Public Employment stipulates: (1) "There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in respect of employment or office in the service of the Republic"; (2) "No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office in the service of the Republic".
In the light of all the articles, Code of Conduct to curb sexual harassment can govern the conduct and practice of all male officers and staffs working in the public and private sectors of Bangladesh. The proposed Code would prescribe the conduct and behaviour of male officers and employees with their female colleagues in discharging their day-to-day responsibilities and activities, which should be followed at all times.
The Code would provide a guideline for behaviour of male employees at all levels (particularly at managerial and supervisory levels) to ensure a congenial work environment free of harassment, discrimination or intimidation. It would lay down the minimum standards of behaviour for protection of women from sexual harassment. The Code would act as a guideline to male employees as to what is expected of them from an ethical and managerial point of view, both in their individual as well as professional conduct with female colleagues and employees.
Compliance with the Code is expected to enhance professionalism and help boost confidence of female and male employees in the workplace. It would facilitate handling of grievances by female employees in a systematic and time-bound manner and discourage male employees from resorting to sexual harassments of their female colleagues.
Under this code regative gender portrayal should be avoided in full. Languages, attitudes and representations, either explicit or implied, that tend to associate particular roles, modes of behaviour or characteristics of women employees should not be negatively portrayed. Any type of gender-based discriminatory behaviour should be avoided by all means. The Code would warrant that a male employee is polite, helpful, and reasonably accessible in his dealings with female colleagues at all times. A male employee should recognize to respect and protect women's dignity and their rights as contained in the Constitution. Male employees should respect female employees' talent, competence, sincerity and zeal for work, and encourage their innovation, creativity, initiatives for change or reform. A male employee should be aware of his female colleagues' special needs and be respectful to these. Under the Code, a male employee would be expected to deal fairly, professionally, and equitably with female colleagues without any discrimination irrespective of race, colour, ethnic or social origin, age, disability, political persuasion, belief, culture or religion.
Male employees should cooperate fully with female colleagues, recognize their rights of access to information. Under the Code, a male employee is expected to refrain from making uncalled for comments on female employees' dresses, complexion or body-part. They should render honest and impartial advices to female colleagues when asked for assistance. A male employee should properly address female employees irrespective of their positions in office and politically correct language should always be used with them.
Any employee violating the Code would be guilty of 'misconduct' as defined in the Code. The proposed Code of Conduct should be built on the principle of equal opportunity for men and women and their right to earn a living without fear of discrimination as mentioned in the Constitution. The Code would comply with the Government's commitment to high international labour standards and empowerment of women. It would also be in line with the United Nations Declaration on Universal Human Rights, the UN Convention for Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, and the ILO Conventions 100 and 111 on workers' rights. It would also be consistent with the principles of Islam and all other religions in vogue in Bangladesh which uphold women's dignity and so ours.