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The recent report of sexual harassment has caused serious concerns among many employees in the various sectors whether government, private, corporate, or other forms of workplaces.  This is one of the first but will not be the last. It is time employers in the country strengthened workplaces to protect vulnerable employees and mechanisms to report any sort of harassment. 

In Bhutan, the Labour and Employment Act (LEA) 2007 governs the private and corporate sector while Civil Service Act, 2010 (CSA) governs the civil service. Section 16 to 19 of LEA prohibits all forms of sexual harassment and defines sexual harassment as “making an unwelcome sexual advance or an unwelcome request for sexual favours to the other person; or engaging in any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature in relation to the other person.”   The penalty for sexual harassment is a criminal offence attracting a petty misdemeanour and fine up to 3,000 days in based on minimum national wage.

Similarly, Section 38 (g) of the CSA states that a civil servant shall not “engage in sexual harassment which is further emphasized under Rule 3.3.14 of Bhutan Civil Service Rules, 2018 and defines sexual harassment as an “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.”  Section 205 of Penal Code of Bhutan (PCB) makes sexual harassment a criminal offence and defines it as “unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal abuse of sexual nature.” But the penalty is only “petty misdemeanour” which means the maximum of less than one year.

However, the current penalties, both administrative and criminal, are inadequate and there is complete lack of mechanisms to adequately compensate victims and take care of them including counselling services in the country. 

UN Women reported that in 2020, globally, an estimated 736 million women reported some form of sexual violence of which few than 40 percent of victims sought help and less than 10 percent sought the help of police. These are mostly in the least developed countries. 

To address sexual harassment and violence, International Labour Organization (ILO) in June 2019 adopted the Violence and Harassment Convention to “set out a common framework to prevent and address violence and harassment, based on an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach.”

ILO further said sexual harassment can therefore encompass a range of behaviours and practices of a sexual nature, such as unwanted sexual comments or advances, jokes, displaying pictures or posters objectifying women, physical contact or sexual assault.” Research revealed that “sexual harassment has a direct effect on employers and the global economy” as it affects productivity, increase employee turnover, low morale, and legal costs stemming from sexual harassment.” 

In closer reading, the Bhutan Power Corporation case states that “when she woke up and saw the director, he allegedly held her from behind.” She “pleaded with him and told him she needed to go to the toilet, he ordered her to shut her mouth.” This seems to be more than harassment.

Possibly, it was an attempt to rape, because she was threatened and if she did not wake up, he could have raped her.

Reports also suggested BPC refused to lodge the complaint due to their internal rules and she was also discouraged from reporting to the police.  Since both sexual harassment and attempt to rape are criminal offences, failure to report to law enforcement agencies is also a criminal offence under the PCB.  

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.




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