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#UsToo: Millions of #MeToo victims at Middle East workplaces

#MeToo is a globally celebrated movement that broke the silence about sexual harassment.

But sexual harassment is not gender specific, despite the fact that a majority of victims are women.

According to World of Labor(WoL), an NGO, “typical victims are more likely to be younger, hold lower-position jobs, work mostly with and be supervised by members of the opposite sex, and, for female victims, work in male-dominated occupations.”

In the Middle East (ME), #MeToo victims are breaking the code of silence but million others have no voice at all.

Does the region as well have a #UsToo problem?

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#MeToo ME

According to a CNN report, the MENA region has its share of #MeToo harassment and abuse victims, “but voices heard are few and far between.”

Lina Abirafeh, director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, in Lebanon, said. “I’ve heard trickles … (but) people are scared.”

She says it’s particularly an issue in the Arab world, where women risk losing their jobs and family by coming forward.

In Egypt, a 2013 report by UN Women found that 99% of women surveyed across seven regions in the country had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

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#UsToo ME

One group at significant risk is migrant and domestic workers, who have no voice, said Abirafeh.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Middle East’s Gulf region has an estimated 2.4 million migrant domestic workers, most from Asia and Africa.

“They fall under the abusive kafala (visa-sponsorship) system, not allowed to leave or change employers without their initial employer’s consent. If they do, they can be arrested and punished with fines, detention and deportation,” said HRW.

“Isolating and harsh working conditions leave domestic workers vulnerable to sexual abuse.”

Most women surveyed by HRW said their employers restricted their communication for weeks or months, and described sexual harassment and assault on them such as male family members groping them, exposing themselves, chasing them around the house, and entering their rooms late at night, and in certain occasions sexual assault.

“The women also said the men harassing them became violent when they refused their advances, threatened to dismiss them or make false claims to their wives that the women had seduced them,” said HRW.

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Complaining was often met with these women being fired with their employers or agents demanding repayment of recruitment costs, often far more than they had earned.

The New Arab, an online media, said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to impose a total ban on sending workers to Kuwait because of sexual abuses that have forced some Filipino women to commit suicide.

Cost to business

No matter the workplace, the productivity and salaries of victims of sexual harassment is lower, increases absenteeism, and generally wastes work time as workers attempt to avoid interactions with harassers.

HRW said those who are sexually harassed report a wide range of negative outcomes, such as worse psychological and physical health, higher absenteeism, less commitment to the organizations, and a higher likelihood of quitting one’s job.

World of Labor (WoL) said that those who report sexual harassment are also at risk of retaliation.

The study of sexual harassment of US government workers estimated the costs of sexual harassment over a two-year period at $327 million, including job turnover, sick leave, and individual and workgroup productivity, with 61% of the total cost due to reduced workgroup productivity.

Just under a quarter of women in the region are in the workforce,one of the lowest rates in the world, said the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD estimates gender-based discrimination in laws and social norms costs the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region $575 billion a year.

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Saudi, UAE combating sexual harassment

According to the official Saudi agency Saudi Gazette, ”92 percent of the women polled in a recent study in Saudi Arabia found that sexual harassment is increasing due to the absence of proper punishment.”

In September 2017, the kingdom welcomed a draft law that criminalizes sexual harassment, which includes jail terms and flogging as possible penalties.

Tunisia passed a law to combat violence against women, and Lebanon and Jordan removed legal loopholes that allowed a rapist to evade punishment by marrying his victim, according to the New Arab daily.

Reuters reported that the UAE issued a law last September to combat abuse of domestic staff, quoting state news agency WAM.

It includes prohibitions on sexual harassment, forced labor, and the employment of domestic workers under 18.

“It also stipulates that workers are entitled to one paid day off each week, 30 days of paid vacation per year and up to 30 days of sick leave,” said Reuters.

The UAE relies heavily on migrant labor with an estimated 8 million workers making up more than 80% of its population, according to the International Labour Organization.

The new law covers 19 service work occupations, including guards, parking valet workers, gardeners, domestic workers, cooks, and nannies, as well as private trainers, nurses, and drivers.