According to The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, since the case's breakout, there has been a sharp increase in complaints at the centers. Experts in the field agree that the law against sexual harassment in Israel is one of the most progressive in the world, but even the liberal legislation has not changed the reality in which only a minority of those harassed have the courage to complain. How could the situation be changed and victims aided and protected?
The 1998 Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law defines five harassing behaviors:
- Extortion, when the act the person is required to perform is of a sexual nature
- Indecent acts, i.e. acts meant for sexual arousal, fulfillment or degradation of which the harassed does not approve
- Repeated implications of a sexual nature, addressed to a person who expressed his or her disinterest (when the implications are in the frame of taking advantage of authority, the harassed does not need to express his or her disapproval)
- Repeated references addressed to a person, focusing on his or her sexuality, when this person has expressed his or her disapproval (same applies here in regards to positions of authority)
- Degrading or humiliating behavior towards a person in regards to his or her gender or sexuality, including sexual orientation, is a criminal offense
The law also defines three channels in which one can act against harassers: pressing criminal charges through the police, a disciplinary action in the workplace, and a civil procedure through filing a civil suit.
Thousands harassed in the workplace
Despite the multiple routes via which victims of harassment can receive help, only very few exercise their right to complain.
In a survey conducted by the Economy and Trade Ministry in 2010, 165,000 women reported they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but only 24% of them said they turned to the authorities. The Association of Rape Crisis Centers receives 12,000 reports a year, but only 20% of the complainants eventually decide to file an official complaint.
"There is a distinct state of under-reporting" says Liat Klein, legal advisor to the association. "Even though the acts are defined as criminal, the police and the State Prosecutor's Office have not yet fully understood the meaning of that. The offenses are still treated as if they were disciplinary matters."
In addition, she says, "women fear people's reactions, the investigation and the legal process, so only a few complain. The concerns escalate with the feelings of shame that accompany sexual offense."
Klein stressed that a police investigation is a strenuous process, which "often requires closed-door confrontation with the offender. Investigations are often brought to court with accusations thrown at the victim."
Shimrit Frankel, assistance coordinator in a center for sexual assault victims in Jerusalem, suggests changing the attitude: "When asked why women do not file complaints in the police, we must remember that the responsibility first of all lies on the harasser and the employer. But in practice, as a society, we point our fingers at those who are hurt, and expect them to step up and complain."
According to Frankel, only a few of the complaints turn into indictments and get to court. She also noted that legal procedures usually make the victim repeatedly reveal "the most intimate details of her life. It is a reenactment of trauma in a situation that no one wants to be in."
Klein insisted that "improvement will come along only when more indictments are filed... through making the legal procedure more accessible and protective of the victims, and through training investigators in to minimize the damage caused by the inquiries. Only then will women feel more comfortable to complain."
Acting Equal Rights in the Workplace Commissioner, Inna Soltanovich-David, believes that employers must do more in order to protect women: "Beyond the fact it is breaking the law, and an employer is obligated to create a sexual-harassment-free environment, employers should understand how much sexual harassment in the workplace harms the natural course of action, and it is better to be proactive and send an unequivocal message against harassments."
'It's just a kiss'
Sigal, who experienced things the hard way, agrees: "The initial feeling when you're harassed is shock and embarrassment. You don't expect to get such treatment in the workplace. It's paralyzing, no matter how old, strong or experienced you are."
Only several months after she was harassed, Sigal found the courage to complain to her superiors, but the disciplinary process reached a dead end. She filed a complaint with the police, even though she "was afraid of the exposure in front of all of my colleagues. All I wanted was to keep doing my job."
Her complaint eventually led to an indictment against the offender and a four-year-long trial. In the end, the offender was removed from the workplace, but was acquitted due to reasonable doubt.
"Not all investigators are kind and empathetic," she added; "remarks like 'it's just a kiss' were made. In court, when the defendant's lawyers tried to present me as a liar, I was humiliated." Nevertheless she felt she had won her fight.
"The difficulty is enormous. I don't think anyone should complain. But at least in my case, thanks to the complaint and the support of my family and my partner, I finally stood up to the person who hurt me and prevented him from continuing to work and do the same to other women."
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