Unsafe Work Environment for Female Journalists and Civil Society Workers: An Additional Burden and Personal Challenge
October 11, 2022
After graduating from the Faculty of Media at Cairo University, I began an internship at the news department of a daily newspaper. My direct supervisor closely monitored my work and training on a daily basis. However, after nearly three months, none of my news articles were published, despite receiving praise from my colleagues for my performance. Instead, my supervisor constantly criticized me in front of everyone without any apparent reason. When my colleagues advised me to inquire about the reasons for his mistreatment, he audaciously informed me that I was the cause, accusing me of being cold and not showing him the same affection as other female colleagues.
Thus began the narrative of journalist A.R., who experienced workplace harassment by her direct supervisor. She recalls, “I remember him saying at that time, ‘You take things very seriously.’ When I informed him that our relationship was purely professional and that he was like an older brother to me, considering the age difference of at least 15 years, he became extremely displeased and warned me that I would not continue in the workplace if I repeated that conversation. I left his office feeling confused and unsure of what to do, especially since opportunities for training and work in the field of journalism are scarce.”
A.R. continued her account by stating, “My supervisor continued to pursue me and repeatedly invited me to go out with him to a bar near the office every week. I kept evading his advances until one day when he met me at the entrance of the newspaper building, and we rode the elevator together. He extended his hand toward my chest, laughing and saying, ‘Just making sure they’re real.’ I was terrified. I entered the office feeling shaken, and my body was trembling.
I approached the editor-in-chief and informed him about the incident. He calmly asked me to leave and not make a scene in the workplace, promising me an investigation that I waited for months. During that time, I was in an extremely poor mental state, and I even contemplated suicide, blaming myself instead of the perpetrator who violated my body. To make matters worse, I was eventually fired from the newspaper under the pretext of failing the training.”
Working in journalism and the civil society field imposes significant pressure on those involved, regardless of gender, due to the nature of the work. However, there are additional reasons that make female workers in this field more susceptible to mental disorders, with the primary cause being the absence of a safe working environment within the institutions they work for.
During the past five years, there has been an increase in demands from journalists and activists for the implementation of policies to protect against harassment, assault, and abuse of power in the workplace. This movement has involved activities such as blogging on social media using hashtags like #SafeWorkEnvironmentForJournalists and the global hashtag #MeToo.
Unionized journalists have also played a role by submitting proposals and memoranda to the union council, advocating for implementing the International Labour Organization’s convention against violence in the workplace. The goal is to develop ethical codes for the work environment, establish policies to combat violence against women, set standards for a safe work environment, conduct fair investigations, and adopt gender-sensitive discourse.
Mona Ezzat, a journalist specializing in union affairs and women’s issues, emphasized the need for a safe work environment not only within specific institutions or establishments but in all work-related sites.
Ezzat highlighted the significant role of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in receiving complaints from journalists regarding violence within the work environment, whether it involves sexual violence such as harassment or other forms of economic, physical, or psychological violence.
It is expected that workplaces should provide a committee to receive complaints and conduct fair investigations. Moreover, specialized mechanisms should be established in various institutions to handle violence against women, with ongoing communication between the syndicate and these institutions regarding the implementation of investigation mechanisms, protection policies, and a code of conduct.
On the other hand, Maha Ahmed, the director of the Economic and Social Rights Program, expressed concern about numerous incidents of assault against working women in civil society, some of which have escalated to the point of rape and sexual violation.
“However, despite civil society’s responsibility to protect its workers, effective protection mechanisms for women are largely absent. There have been repeated calls for the establishment of committees and regulations to combat violence against women, as well as the formation of neutral investigation committees that consider the rights of all parties involved while maintaining the confidentiality of complainants, witnesses, and the entire investigation process.”
Ahmed highlighted that the majority tends to blame the victims in many cases, asking questions like, “Why didn’t she refuse? Why is she speaking up now? Why didn’t she report it at the time?” These questions overlook the psychological burden that victims experience after being subjected to violence, particularly when it involves sexual misconduct.
Losing a safe work environment is a terrifying nightmare for many Egyptian female journalists because it differs from other forms of violence against women in its close connection to financial and economic security, as it affects their job stability and ability to earn a stable salary. This intensifies the concerns of survivors or those exposed to such violence, as they fear losing their seniority, promotion opportunities, eligibility for positions, or chances for professional development. They worry about losing the support of supervisors and institutions in building their skills and capacities.
Reporting harassment within the institution is often accompanied by stigma and victim-blaming. Survivors are frequently burdened with the responsibility of proving the violation or assault, and they risk being labeled as troublemakers. The fear of job loss or reduced employment opportunities looms large if it becomes widely known that they have reported the incident to authorities. Institutions, instead of prioritizing investigations, justice, and compensation, often prioritize their reputation by pressuring survivors to remain silent.
A research study conducted by the American University in Cairo, based on in-depth individual interviews with several journalists, shed light on the experiences of Egyptian female journalists with gender discrimination in the workplace. Despite the growing number of women employed in media and journalism, their empowerment has not been realized. On the contrary, they frequently encounter severe instances of gender discrimination due to the lack of job security and the presence of threatening working conditions.
The study identified five main areas of discrimination: discriminatory promotion and wage policies, challenges in maintaining work-life balance, gender-based practices, sexual harassment in the workplace, discrimination in assigning important reporting tasks, and difficulties in building relationships with institutional management.
These findings highlight the significant impact of the loss of a safe work environment on the mental health of female journalists and civil society workers. Gender-based violence, along with its psychological consequences, intersects with the inherent risks of their work, which involves covering and editing distressing or shocking events. These risks are shared with male journalists, but female journalists also face violence within the workplace and gender-based discrimination. This creates a complex web of suffering and contributing factors that foster a fertile environment for mental illnesses.
If you are experiencing psychological pressure in your work or find yourself unable to continue, some organizations can provide support:
Rory Peck Trust: https://rorypecktrust.org/
I Will Not Stay Silent by Arij: https://iwnss.arij.net/
Front Line Defenders: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/
El Nadeem Center for Victims of Violence and Torture: https://elnadeem.org/