International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women – 25th November (in Belgium on the 24th November).
By the ROSA Campaign – Belgium
This year 18 women have been murdered, usually by their partner or former partner. Outright murder is the worst, but not the only problem. A study by the non-profit association “Touche pas à mon pote” found that 98% of women in Belgium have had to deal with sexual harassment, ranging from sexist remarks, insults, touches or worse, in public places at least once in their life! Campaign ROSA believes these are reasons enough to demonstrate against violence against women. In Belgium, the protest organised by the Mirabal platform will be on 24th November and we will be mobilising a socialist-feminist block.
Sexual harassment on public transport
It’s hard to miss – subways, buses and trains are like sardine cans during rush hours. The lack of staff to supervise makes sexist intimidation easier. Sometimes we don’t even know who’s touching us! The stops are covered with masses of advertisements depicting women as objects. So why is it surprising that women be treated in this way?
There should be a drastic increase of public transport, so we are no longer packed in, making women less vulnerable to unwanted contact. A better service in the evening and at night would ensure we could travel home safely after a night out. More public transport staff, trained in the prevention and management of harassment, would help to tackle the problem. But now things are developing in the opposite direction, despite trade union opposition the second member of staff who accompanied the driver on local public transport has already been cut. Railway management want to do the same on at least some trains. Resistance to sexism and trade union struggle for better public services are closely linked.
Advertising is often the only colourful touch in predominantly grey stations or at bus shelters. Reducing the scope for commercial enterprises, thereby reducing the presence of sexist images, and replacing them with social and cultural information boards for organisations that are socially active, involved in neighbourhood activities or with artistic projects would be a step forward. We also have to ensure that public transport companies are not dependent on advertising revenue.
#PasTaPotiche and the struggle against harassment at work
The hashtag PasTaPotiche was popular in French-speaking Belgium last summer. Literally it means: ‘Not your vase’, but ‘potiche’ is also used for a submissive woman who mainly serves as decoration. Many young girls indeed find a student job as a hostess, with often disastrous working conditions. A size 36 skirt and high heels, regardless of the weather and the number of working hours, are the most important requirements. They are used to glamorise, for example, sporting events like the Tour de France, to make them ‘sexy’. Many young women have no choice but to accept such work as they need an income, but they are inevitably treated as objects for whom ‘anything goes’. Inappropriate comments are seen as normal, and if you don’t keep smiling, you don’t have to come back.
The problem is not limited to such work. A study by the Christian-democratic trade union showed that almost one in three household cleaners are confronted with sexual harassment and violence at work. In many workplaces, under staff pressure, structures have now been set up to make complaints possible.
Dorine Cordy spokesperson of the gender committee of the socialist trade union has said that under the pressure of #MeToo some change has occurred. “Sexual harassment is now being discussed among colleagues and it is no longer seen as acceptable.” The management of large companies have been forced to deal with sexism due to the existence of the Committee for Prevention and Protection at Work, a consultation structure of trade unionists and bosses. As a result, each workplace with more than 50 employees has to appoint a “prevention adviser”. Trade unions have started to take this problem seriously and have started to train shop stewards on how to deal with these issues.
But in small and medium sized companies, there are no prevention advisers and most importantly no trade union representation, so any member of staff has to deal with managers on their own, at best with possible trade union help from outside the company. Talking as a victim entails risks. Dorine Cordy again says: “Sometimes the victim gets worse hours or holiday arrangements … often it ends with another job. Or with burn-out.” Finding a new job is not easy and many women won’t take the risk and remain silent.
Fighting harassment in school and universities
A study at Liège University shows that one in five female students over 18 have already experienced attempted rape. Police figures show that every week there’s at least one reported attempted rape in secondary schools (12-18 year olds). The growing international women’s movement, #MeToo and earlier campaigns like hashtag Wij Overdrijven Niet – ‘We Do Not Exaggerate’, which had thousands of Flemish women testifying on harassment, mean that today more women dare to break the silence.
But it still remains very difficult to complain. Victims fear they will not be taken seriously, or believed or that they will be blamed. In court cases, the behaviour or the clothes of the victim are often used to justify rape or prove there was consent. Campaign Rosa fights for the right of everyone to dress as they want without being harassed and without this being used to justify violence. We also need decent sex education in schools, starting in primary schools (6-12 year olds), which emphasises consent and doesn’t put forward a hetero-normative position.
The rising cost of higher education means that a majority of students now have to work, often in low wage jobs with precarious contracts. A growing number of students end up working in the sex industry. Campaign Rosa fights for a student wage that would effectively cover all costs of education so that students can concentrate on studying and so that higher education remains accessible to all students. It would also be the best way to end the current social segregation in higher education with the number of students, mainly from lower and middle income families, failing their studies increasing.
Collective struggle is needed
Symbolic legislation, such as the non-workable anti-sexism law against street harassment, barely makes a dent in dealing with the issue, if the core of the problem is not addressed. The material situation of women in precarious and low-paid jobs, the double daily task of domestic work and caring for family members in the absence of public services, the use of women’s bodies to make a profit, the problem of the second-class position of women and the sexism that flows from it cannot be resolved without a fight. It is a social problem, and so we must fight collectively.
Campaign ROSA emphasizes what unites different struggles and movements. We call for a greater involvement of the trade unions in the fight against the specific oppression of women, but also for campaigns to organise the least organised workplaces, in which women are systematically over-represented! We call on trade unionists to put up posters for the demonstration of 24 November on the trade union information boards, to hold an informal meeting on the role that the trade union can play in this area, to mobilise workers to go to the demonstration together in their trade union colours.
The workers’ movement has the potential strength, both numerically and through its position in production, to win this battle, if armed with a program that doesn’t accept that the wealth produced by the workers is taken by a tiny minority of capitalists that do everything in their power to divide us. There is no capitalism without sexism.