SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)--Giovanna Riveri remembers dreading going to work at the Ministry of Agriculture, where her male boss would sexually harass her daily. She says she felt trapped by the need to make a living, yet powerless to resist his innuendos and outright harassment.
Riveri says he would touch her hair, make her attend unnecessary meetings and write her explicitly sexual letters. Although he never touched her, she says she was psychological intimidated. After confronting him, the harassment escalated to the point where Riveri says she couldn't work.
"I was under an incredible amount of stress," she says. "The phone would ring and I would jump because he had created such a sense of persecution. He would come to my office and I would hide in the bathroom and he could spend hours waiting for me."
Riveri's case is all too common in Chile, where 1-in-5 women, according to a 1993 survey, was the victim of sexual harassment at work.
But Riveri, herself is far from common. While most women suffered silently, Riveri considered her options, which were to stay silent or try to make some noise.
Eight years ago, Riveri filed a complaint to the National Service for Women--better known as SERNAM--in the expectation they might be able to apply some sort of sanctions against her boss. When that didn't happen, she stopped going into work and was fired from her job.
She filed a case for wrongful dismissal that made its way up to the Supreme Court. In April of 2003, the court declared she'd been the victim of harassment and an unfair dismissal and awarded her about $17,000 in damages, paid by her former employer.
Her case is widely credited with spurring Chile into action on an issue that had made it a regional laggard.
While a wave of laws penalizing sexual harassment passed through Latin America in the past decade--beginning with Mexico in 1991 and, most recently, Puerto Rico in 2003--Chile just enacted a law to define and punish sexual harassment earlier this year. After 14 years of parliamentary debate the bill, passed by Congress in January, was signed into law by President Chilean President Ricardo Lagos on March 8, to mark International Women's Day.
"Brave public testimonies like Giovanna Riveri's have helped propel the current laws," says Myriam Verdugo, deputy minister of SERNAM. "They take it out of the private realm by shining light on the issue."
Government workers say the law has caused an immediate upturn in disclosures.
Between March and May, SERNAM received 25 complaints of sexual-harassment, a six-fold increase over the comparable period in the previous year.
Verdugo says the results are similar to the rise of complaints after domestic abuse was made an infraction ten years ago.
"Before we made domestic abuse a misdemeanor, there were 3,000 complaints a year," says Verdugo. "Last year, we had 80,000. In the case of sexual harassment, there had only been 13 cases registered in recent years. So we're hoping that the fact that there is now some protection for victims will bring this issue to light."
Sonia Montano, who is in charge of the Women's Division of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, says Chile has lagged behind most other countries because of its deep-rooted social conservatism. "Both sexual harassment and domestic violence are bills that have been hard to pass in our country, which has such a conservative tradition," says Verdugo. "It's been hard because we've delved into an area that has always been considered private life."
Uphill Battle on Education
Educating men that sexual comments are out of line--especially in the workplace--will be an uphill battle, says Valentina Martinez, a coordinator with the Santiago-based La Morada, which counsels victims of abuse and sexual harassment. She says the consequences also need to be harsher.
"Chile's handling of women's issues is a disaster at the level of public policy," she says. "There's so much still to do. For example, someone who robs a television set is punished much more harshly than someone who attacks and damages the psychological or physical integrity of a person. Here, property is much more valued than people."
Under Chile's new law, an employer must adopt measures to safeguard those involved after a complaint by separating work places and schedules. Employers must launch internal investigations and report back to the Ministry of Labor.
If the harassment is confirmed, the perpetrator is to be fired without compensation and the victim has the option of pursuing legal action in the courts. If the perpetrator is the victim's boss, the victim can quit the company and receive the compensation normally paid when a worker resigns, plus an additional 80 percent. He or she also maintains the right to pursue legal action in the courts and demand additional compensation for moral and psychological damage. Jail time is not among the punishments.
Martinez says lax sanctions had discouraged women from filing sexual harassment complaints, let alone criminal charges.
Before this new law, women could try to mount lawsuits based on labor laws, but it would take years and Riveri's was the first women ever to win a sexual harassment suit.
"There was no such thing as formal workplace complaints," says Pilar Oyarzun, Riveri's lawyer. "One could complain to SERNAM, but there was never any formal procedure to respond to those complaints because it wasn't illegal. So achieving this law was a huge victory. It means women will have options now."
Attention to Procedures
The economic commission's Montano says that although Chile has been slow to pass a sex-harassment law, it has paid much more attention to the procedures for dealing with sexual harassment cases than the countries that already have harassment laws.
But Montano takes issue with an unusual provision in the law, which allows for the possibility that an employee--not just an employer or manager--could be the one doing the harassing.
Chile's law defines harassment as unwanted intimacy between two people, regardless of power levels.
"That's controversial because in most countries, sex harassment laws exist to protect people who have a power disadvantage," says Montano. "If the law sees the sexes as power equals, then men can say that their female coworkers were insinuating or provoking the harassment. ... I think in the case of Chile's law, there's a touch of Puritanism. But the goal of this law is not to eliminate flirting or compliments, or to make women stop wearing low-cut tops. It's to punish an abuse of power."
Jen Ross is a Chilean-Canadian freelance journalist who returned to her mother's homeland a year ago, to tell its untold, or under-told, stories.
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Santa Monica College Library definition of sexual harassment:
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