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Sunday, 1 April, 2001, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Brazil tackles sexual harassment
Sao Paulo skyline
The Brazilian workplace is a lot more informal
By Isabel Murray

A project which has been just approved by Brazil's Congress could soon transform sexual harassment in Brazil into a crime carrying a 1 to 2 year prison sentence.

The legislation - which will set Brazil apart from most countries where harassment is dealt with under civil law - has delighted feminist groups.

It has now moved forward to the senate where it will probably be voted on before the end of this year.

Sexual harassment takes place when a person - using hierarchical superiority - gains sexual advantages

Bill author Iara Bernardi
But the subject is deemed controversial because in Brazil, the workplace is considered to be a lot more informal than in the US or in Europe. Kisses on the cheek and hugs are looked upon as normal.

"There is no problem with regards to flirting, making a pass or any other relationship in the work environment", explains the author of the project, Congresswoman Iara Bernardi.

"The bill makes it clear that sexual harassment takes place when a person forces the other person, using his or her hierarchical superiority, to gain sexual advantages or favours."

Fear of reprisal

A typical case would be that of the male manager who fires someone or denies an employee a promotion because the person in question has not given in to his advances.

The problem lies in proving this sort of situation in a court of law.

Office scene
Feminist groups are delighted with legislation
People who have suffered sexual harassment are reluctant to tell their stories, fearing reprisals or being labelled as troublemakers.

There is also the concern that if the bill becomes law, it will be used to gain compensation or as a tool of vengeance.

This was the case with a male employee employed by the Mayor's Office in the city of Sao Paulo, who did not wish to be identified.

He recounts that two years ago he refused to renew the sabbatical leave of a female employee holding a lower position.

"From the moment she returned to work, against her will, my life became hell", he says.

"This woman went round telling everyone that she was being forced to resign, because I was pushing her to go to bed with me".

Company policy

It is to avoid the repetition of incidents such as this one that Jose Pastore, Professor of Labour Relations at the University of Sao Paulo, is against the project.

I think there is more office sex going on between colleagues in the USA than there is here

Journalist Matthew Shirts
He believes that turning sexual harassment into a crime will, in all likelihood, give rise to the growth of a new breed of lawyer specialising in compensation cases.

"The best thing to do would be to encourage companies to implement a policy to prevent sexual harassment, laying down clear rules of conduct," Professor Pastore says.

Matthew Shirts, editor of the Brazilian version of the magazine National Geographic, has been living in Brazil for 20 years and regards the bill with optimism.

"I think the project is a good thing, and believe that the law here will be used to punish really abusive cases, where a person's authority is used to obtain sex.

"I cannot see it being like in the US, where even casual flirtation at work is frowned upon.

"But personally I think there is more office sex going on between colleagues in the USA than there is here".

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See also:

15 Dec 00 | Education
Gap year students 'sexually harassed'
07 Jun 00 | Europe
Europe 'ban on sexual harassment'
05 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
China sex harassment law proposed
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