Overview and Definition of Terms

Throughout this knowledge asset, reference to certain provisions or sections of a piece of legislation, part of a legal judgment, or aspect of a practice does not imply that the legislation, judgment, or practice is considered in its entirety to be a good example or a promising practice.

Some of the laws cited herein may contain provisions which authorize the death penalty. In light of the United Nations General Assembly resolutions 62/14963/168, 65/206, and 67/176 calling for a moratorium on and ultimate abolition of capital punishment, the death penalty should not be included in sentencing provisions for crimes of violence against women and girls.

A law that defines and provides remedies for sexual harassment is a critical element of protecting the rights of women and girls. When there is no legal provision related to sexual harassment, denial about the problem can be pervasive and women have little redress. In Chile, for example, the Department of Labor received only 61 complaints of sexual harassment in the year before Chile’s law was passed. Following passage of the sexual harassment law, the same office received more than 1900 complaints in a year. (See: Daniela Estrada, Sexual Harassment Law Finally Approved After 13 Years, 2005)

In its Handbook for legislation on violence against women, the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women has identified several key areas that laws related to sexual harassment should address. In section 3.4 the UN Handbook specifies that legislation should:

  • Criminalize sexual harassment;
  • Recognize sexual harassment as a form of discrimination;
  • Recognize sexual harassment as a violation of women’s rights with health and safety consequences;
  • Recognize that harassment occurs in both vertical (such as between teacher and student or between manager and employee) and horizontal power relationships (such as between employees at the same level);
  • Provide effective criminal, civil, and administrative remedies for victims;
  • Address harassment in multiple sectors including public places, employment (formal and informal sectors), education, housing, commercial transactions, provision of benefits and services, and sporting activities.

Definition of Terms Used in this Chapter

Harassment: To create an unpleasant or hostile environment, especially through uninvited physical or verbal conduct.

Sexual behavior: This means actions, language or visual materials which specifically refer to, portray or involve sexual activity or language. Conduct of a sexual nature may include overt sexual solicitations, inappropriate touching, sexual jokes and inquiries about a person’s sex life.

Sex-based behavior: Sex-based behavior occurs because of the sex of the intended victim but is not necessarily sexual in nature. Examples of this kind of behavior are disparaging comments on the role of women, or discriminatory treatment aimed only at women.

Assault: Infliction of offensive physical contact or bodily harm or the threat or attempt to inflict such conduct or harm. 

Peer-to-peer harassment: Harassing behavior between individuals considered to be equals in the context in which the harassment takes place, such as a student harassing a fellow student, athlete harassing a fellow team member, employee harassing another employee at the same level.

Quid pro quo harassment: Also referred to as abuse of authority, occurs when (1) job benefits, including employment, promotion, salary increases, shift or work assignments, performance expectations and other conditions of employment, are made contingent on the provision of sexual favors, usually to an employer, supervisor or agent of the employer who has the authority to make decisions about employment actions, or (2) the rejection of a sexual advance or request for sexual favors results in a tangible employment detriment.

Hostile-environment harassment: Harassment that does not result in a tangible employment-related action such as displaying pornography, touching and grabbing, and sexual or sex-based remarks or jokes.

Cyber-harassment: The use of new media and web-based technology to carry out harassment, such as unwanted emails, text messages, and posting on social network sites such as Facebook.