Law to better protect women against harassment
The revised Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women will come into force on Jan 1 next year. One of the highlights of the law is that it provides greater protection to women against sexual harassment.
The fact that the term "sexual harassment" appears 12 times in the statute shows that the government attaches great importance to the protection of women. The revised law is the outcome of years of hard work by scholars, lawyers, judges, and women's organizations, and demonstrates the seriousness of the legislature when it comes to protecting women against sexual harassment.
The statute authorizes prosecutors to file public-interest lawsuits against sexual offenders. Also, Article 25 of the law adds a new clause saying that employers are legally obliged to take measures to protect employees against sexual harassment. And the law also stipulates that if they fail to do so and the harassment causes serious results, they will be held to account too.
In the past there were sexual harassment cases in which the employers were not held accountable or didn't bear joint responsibility for the offense. Such a situation may not occur thanks to the revised law.
Victims and women's groups have for years been hoping to include cases of sexual harassment at work into public-interest litigation. The law fulfills their wish, and sounds a warning to not only potential offenders to never harass women but also company owners and managers that they better take precautionary and corrective measures against sexual harassment at work.
Also, the revised law empowers employers to issue a "warning letter" to the perpetrators. Paragraph 1 of Article 80 of the law stipulates that if women face sexual harassment, public security authorities should hold the perpetrator accountable or issue a warning letter to the perpetrator, and the company or owner should penalize and even fire the perpetrator.
Given that sexual harassment is mostly committed due to the asymmetry in power relations between genders, a warning letter issued by the employer, or penalty imposed on the perpetrators will not only expose the true face of the sexual offenders but could also render them jobless. Such punishment will also act as deterrence against potential offenders.
By urging companies to fulfill their due responsibilities to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, the legislation makes clear the accountability system. Paragraph 2 of Article 80 says the managements of schools and government departments will be disciplined if they fail to take the necessary steps to protect women against sexual harassment.
Holding the management accountable for sexual harassment of employees is the most effective way of forcing them to take measures to protect employees from sexual offenders, because the sword hanging over their heads will force them to establish a proper mechanism to protect employees against harassment.
Since judicial interpretations are needed to define what exactly constitutes sexual harassment and set the standard of proof, Paragraph 1 of Article 23 of the law lists the main features of sexual harassment and its manifestations. For example, the use of words, text messages, images, or physical behavior with sexual connotations or meaning constitutes sexual harassment, and is forbidden by the law. This is a step in the right direction.
Yet it still doesn't clearly define sexual harassment, which has caused confusion, especially because the description of sexual harassment can be narrowed, and the courts, in general, require "foolproof" evidence to punish the offenders. Therefore, it is necessary for the Supreme People's Court to issue judicial interpretations, in order to give a clear definition of sexual harassment, and explain in detail what exactly constitutes sexual harassment, in order to unify the judicial standards in such cases.
Nevertheless, the revised law strengthens the protection of the rights and interests of disadvantaged groups such as poor women, elderly women, and disabled women. In fact, the law provides better protection to women by holding employers to account if women's labor and social security rights and interests are violated.
The author is a professor at the School of Law, China Women's University. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.