Top panel recommends reform of sexual harassment policies

Top panel recommends reform of sexual harassment policies

Plan includes empowering prevention officers, allowing online filing of complaints, public awareness campaign; critics warn initiative is underfunded

Illustrative picture of a #MeToo supporter of the online campaign against sexual abuse and harassment which started in October 2017 after sex abuse allegations were leveled against former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. (nito100/Getty Images/iStock
Illustrative picture of a #MeToo supporter of the online campaign against sexual abuse and harassment which started in October 2017 after sex abuse allegations were leveled against former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. (nito100/Getty Images/iStock

A new Israeli government program to prevent sexual harassment will focus on a public information campaign about workplace harassment, seek to empower anti-harassment officers in both the public and private sectors, and incentivize research toward better policies.

The plan, which consists of 35 recommendations and has an NIS 10 million ($2.7 million) implementation budget, was submitted to Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel on Monday.

The Likud party’s Gamliel said she accepted the recommendations. “We have to reassert the boundaries of what’s allowed and what isn’t when it comes to the treatment of women and of all people. Sexual harassment is a violent crime that demands a zero tolerance approach. That’s the only way to effect change,” she said.

If implemented, much of the program’s budget will be spent in the coming year, with the launch of a NIS 3 million ($810,000) media blitz on the damage wrought by workplace sexual harassment and ways to prevent the behavior, and a NIS 4 million ($104,000) digital component that includes a single nationwide website with a first-ever pilot program allowing individuals to file complaints online.

The plan was drawn up by a top-level committee of state officials headed by Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women director Eva Medzhibozh.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish women work on computers at their desks in the Comax software company office in the central city of Holon near Tel Aviv on April 17, 2016. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

Representing the government were the directors of the finance, justice, education and social equality ministries, Shai Babad, Emi Palmor, Shmuel Abuav and Avi Cohen, respectively. They were joined by the IDF’s top gender equality officer, Brig. Gen. Sharon Nir, and the equivalent officer in the Israel Police, Assistant Commissioner Yifat Shklar.

The panel also included the heads of two non-governmental advocacy groups, Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel Director Orit Sulitzeanu and Arab-community women’s empowerment NGO Kayan’s Director Rafa Anabtawi.

It remains to be seen if the plan can be implemented even on a limited basis during the current election period. It is not yet clear if the next government will take up where the last left off, or if some elements of the plan require new legislation that will have to wait until the swearing in of the 21st Knesset after the April 9 elections.

The plan’s price tag was kept low through a focus on education via public information campaigns, changing existing policies without requiring additional manpower, and better use of data to combat harassment.

But the paltry funding drew criticism from one of the Knesset’s most outspoken women’s rights advocates.

Zionist Union parliament member Merav Michaeli attending a faction meeting in the Knesset, December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“The National Plan for Combating Sexual Harassment is right at its core: boosting the status of the [prevention] officers, training, enforcement with employers, etc.,” Labor MK Merav Michaeli said Monday. “But then the government didn’t put its money where its mouth is. Ten million shekels over three years is nothing for such a widespread phenomenon.”

The dearth in funding will send the plan “the way of the Plan for Preventing Violence Against Women,” which has been criticized for its slow implementation and lack of money, Michaeli added.

A key element of the program includes empowering sexual harassment prevention officers, which each Israeli company, organization and state body is already required to appoint.

The committee recommended stronger regulation of the position, mandatory training for the officers, and better legal protections from firing to enable the officers to challenge colleagues, including higher-ups, who are either accused of harassment or seen as failing to do enough following a complaint.

It also urged setting up a public database listing the officers in each agency and company so employees of large organizations can easily find their point-person.

Illustrative: Women in the boardroom. (Pixabay)

It recommended stiffer sanctions against companies that fail to live up to these requirements, and the establishment of a government body with oversight powers over corporate policies.

The committee also recommended a broad media campaign to educate the public about their rights and responsibilities when it comes to harassment, and to launch a program of workshops for teenagers to help head off future harassment.

The committee especially targeted state agencies, recommending structural changes to make ministries’ harassment prevention officers more independent, including placing them under the authority of the Authority for the Advancement of the Status of Women, a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office, instead of their ministries’ internal management. The committee urges the launch of a pilot program to see if the officers might be further empowered by being appointed from outside their ministry’s ranks.

The plan includes, among other recommendations, publicizing a “good list” of organizations and companies whose harassment policies qualify them for state grants, as well as an annual “best employer” prize to be launched by 2021.

According to the Authority for the Advancement of Women, the committee members drew on successful efforts in the US, Canada and Australia for some of their proposals. The committee’s work was advised by the international consulting firm Deloitte.

In a statement, Medzhibozh praised the plan as helping ensure change happens quickly.

“As a woman and a mother, I’m proud of this committee’s recommendations, because I see in them the potential for change in the foreseeable future. We came to change the rules of the game. The responsibility falls on us all as a society, and each of us should know their role in preventing future harassment,” she said.

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