Statement from Purna Sen, UN Women’s Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination

Saddened by the pain caused to women that is now being heard through the #MeToo movement across the world, UN Women’s Executive Coordinator and Spokesperson on Sexual Harassment, Purna Sen, honours victims who have spoken and who continue to come forward.

Date: Monday, May 7, 2018

Sexual harassment and assault are global, no organization or country should think itself immune. Too many women feel nobody is listening to them, nobody believes them or cares. I salute the women brave enough to speak up, despite the risks, who rightly call us all to account. We have seen how the #MeToo, #TimesUp, and other movements that have already broken silence around the world, have enhanced accountability but there is much more to be done.

The #MeToo wave has risen in many parts of the world. In the Americas, in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, women have been taking to the streets, speaking out about the violence they face and standing in solidarity with their sisters. In recent days, weeks and months, women in the United States of America (USA), South Korea, Japan, Spain, Sweden and beyond have made us aware of their experiences and giving notice to abusers.

In South Korea, #MeToo moved through the arts and entertainment world leading to President Moon Jae-In calling for a wider #MeToo movement in the country. He rightly noted that sexual harassment can only be uprooted when culture and attitudes change.

In neighbouring Japan, women are naming and detailing their experiences of sexual violence—from journalism to politics, from school girls to university students. In the USA, abusers in the worlds of entertainment and journalism have been held accountable by their employers and by the courts. In Sweden, a country which regularly tops gender equality ranking tables, an open letter from hundreds of actors sharing their testimonies and demanding zero tolerance led to thousands of women across all industries echoing those demands. The starting point on sexual violence cannot be suspicion if we really want to enable victims to speak.

Sexual harassment is one dimension of broader experiences of violence against women, for which perpetrators need to be held fully to account. Impunity for human rights violations permeate rape culture, blame and judge victims for wrongs done to them, and cannot be allowed to continue—including in criminal justice systems. The light sentencing of ‘the wolf pack’ attackers in Spain diminishes the severity of the violation and undermines clear obligations to uphold the rights of women. Justice must be known by women. 

From parliaments to film industries, to hotel workers and journalists—all of us must clean our own house in all parts of the world. That includes us at the United Nations and it is clear that we too have work to do. Safe and respectful workplaces are our right, as is freedom from violence. There can be no tolerance, acceptance or denial of the existence of sexual abuse at work.

Positions of power are dominated by men; women are often expected to be quietly accepting of aggressive male sexual behaviours. Such norms support the persistence of sexual harassment and, although no category of women seems to be exempt, young women who are new in their careers, are particularly vulnerable.

Men’s crucial contributions to this momentum include examining their power and behaviour, challenging other men and making change that lasts.

As the UN organization that leads on gender equality and women’s empowerment, we recognize violence against women as the expression of structural inequality between men and women. Ending violence against women is at the core of our mission and work. UN Women works to prevent and respond to this violence, to increase access to services for survivors and to make private and public spaces safer for women and girls. We will listen, watch and recommend actions that will make the world work better for women.

We hear you; we are with you.


Note: Ms. Sen can be reached at end.sexualharassment[at]unwomen.org. Please note that she has no investigation mandate and does not undertake internal reporting. She does not provide individual support nor referrals but is keen to hear from interested parties seeking change.