#Metoo: From hashtag, to movement, to systemic solutions to combat sexual harassment


By Zita Gurmai & Marja Bijl

Sexual harassment has been present in the lives of women forever, but has always been treated as something unspoken, private and shameful. Last year, the #metoo uproar showed the world what feminists have known for decades. Two women involved in politics, PES Women’s President Zita Gurmai & Vice-President Marja Bijl, give us their vision of a new social paradigm in which action is taken to tackle issues such as sexual harassment.

Thanks to social media, a lot of anger and frustration about sexual harassment has been brought to the surface. This ‘modern revolution’ broke the silence, recreated solidarity among women of all ages, ethnicities and social backgrounds and gave victims a platform to be heard and respected. While the sexual harassment scandals from Hollywood were only the tip of the iceberg, courageous women all over the globe spoke about their incredibly uncomfortable experiences and made clear that the underlying causes of sexual harassment and rape are the unequal power structures in our society.

This ‘modern revolution’ broke the silence, recreated solidarity among women of all ages, ethnicities and social backgrounds and gave victims a platform to be heard and respected.

Systemic changes needed
Now, women are being supported to stand up and to start to change the way in which our world is structured against us. But we must not lose the momentum of this wave of solidarity, understanding and awareness. It is important not only to have a platform from which to speak, break taboos and show that women do not stand alone, but also to harvest the fruits of this new era. It is time for those of us who have decision-making power to address this difficult issue and to make systemic changes to help our societies to heal.

While businesses and companies have realised that their reputations are at stake and thus have implemented drastic measures, political parties and institutions are lagging behind. What is needed now is to set clear and specific guidelines for what types of behaviour constitute sexual harassment and policies to provide a clear process for victims and employers to follow when it takes place. We must improve messaging and awareness inside every workplace and create procedures that make it easy to handle and report incidents, from high up the corporate ladder through to workers in low-paid positions.

Action by the EU institutions
Sadly, the EU institutions are not immune from sexual harassment. That is why, for example, the European Parliament pushed for a cross-party motion on combating sexual harassment and abuse in the EU last year and is also moving forward with its advisory committee dealing with harassment complaints and rolling out more proactive and preventive campaigns, especially targeted at MEP assistants.

PES Women is convinced that these are not the only positive consequences of the #metoo movement, which will trickle down and bring about real change. With the #timesup campaign creating a legal defence fund to help women to report sexual harassment and assault, the #metoo movement has already taken the next step. In the US, we already see more women running for office than ever before and people seem to understand that, in the long run, it is essential to increase female participation among decision-making authorities in order to foster a better work environment. This is something we wish to see in Europe too.

Tackling violence against women
While the #metoo movement has opened ears, eyes and minds, sexual harassment is not an issue that will disappear soon unless we act on it, gathering data and making legislative, institutional and cultural changes. In the EU, we not only have to come up with concrete measures to translate the movement into political action but we need to implement the policy proposals that are already right in front of us to tackle the multiple forms of violence that women suffer every day, including sexual harassment. That is why it is essential that the EU ratifies the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women as soon as possible, as we have been requesting for the past year. With the right political will, we can expect dramatic changes that go beyond a hashtag.

Read the article in French