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10 Mar, 2010 05:29

Silent struggle: Russian women face sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a sad reality for many women in modern Russia. But without established laws to protect female employees from unwanted attention, many victims suffer in silence.

Yulia says it started gradually. First her boss approached her jokingly, but then it escalated to more obvious and personal contact. Groping, grabbing and constant unwanted attention is what Yulia says she had to endure from her boss for more than 18 months.

“I had a nervous breakdown, my blood pressure went up and I fainted. An ambulance came to help me out of it. You see, I was overstrained. It wasn’t easy,” Yulia recalls.

The mentality of her co-workers, who teased and taunted her about the issue, left her alone to face the problem. Yulia’s head supervisor – incidentally a woman – refused to help. Eventually, she had quit.

Women’s rights advocates confirm that most victims of sexual harassment in the Russian workforce have to endure the humiliation in silence, as the burden of proof is too high and the legal recourse too low.

Unfortunately, this is the biggest problem in Russia in the field of sexual harassment – women are really scared to report their cases. Why? Because they are afraid to lose their job. They are afraid to stay alone, to have no means. They are afraid to make a negative impact on their careers,” says lawyer Margarita Zakiyan “So they would prefer to either continue living in an unhealthy environment at work or find another job. Also they don't really see protection from the government.”

The term “sexual harassment” does not exist legally in Russia and so the law cannot technically prohibit its practice. In fact, since 1993, only two Russian women have launched such suits and won. But since precedent plays no role in defining laws as it does in the US and in Europe, the women who won those cases are the only ones who have benefited from them.

Lawyers who fight to bring alleged victims justice say the best policy is artful litigation.

I handled a case when a woman was fired after she rejected her boss’s sexual demands,” says lawyer Anastasia Braicheva. “In court we couldn’t refer to her sexual harassment, so we built our defense based on labor code violations, which was clear to our court and we won.”

But while the Russian law is slow to change, women are becoming savvier at screening potential bosses.

The candidates ask for the name of the company, its website and why a previous employee left. Some girls even ask for the number of a dismissed person,” says Yulia Kostina at Formtime Personnel Agency.

Russia does have laws that empower rape victims, but women like Yulia hope the nation will adopt legislation that will protect women before the harassment turns to violence.