FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions on the United Nations’ efforts to address and prevent sexual harassment system-wide
 

Consistent with the uniform definition in the UN Secretary-General's Bulletin on Addressing discrimination, harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority (ST/SGB/20198), ‘sexual harassment’ refers to:

 

“any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected, or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment may occur in the workplace or in connection with work. While typically involving a pattern of conduct, sexual harassment may take the form of a single incident. In assessing the reasonableness of expectations or perceptions, the perspective of the person who is the target of the conduct shall be considered. Sexual harassment is the manifestation of a culture of discrimination and privilege based on unequal gender relations and other power dynamics. Sexual harassment may involve any conduct of a verbal, nonverbal or physical nature, including written and electronic communications. Sexual harassment may occur between persons of the same or different genders, and individuals of any gender can be either the targets or the perpetrators. Sexual harassment may occur outside the workplace and outside working hours, including during official travel or social functions related to work. Sexual harassment may be perpetrated by any colleague, including a supervisor, peer or a subordinate. A perpetrator’s status as a supervisor or senior official may be treated as an aggravating circumstance… Sexual harassment can take a variety of forms – from looks and words to physical contact of a sexual nature.”

 

The UN System Model Policy on Sexual Harassment defines sexual harassment as follows:

 

"Sexual harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offense or humiliation, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment. Sexual harassment may occur in the workplace or in connection with work. While typically involving a pattern of conduct, sexual harassment may take the form of a single incident. In assessing the reasonableness of expectations or perceptions, the perspective of the person who is the target of the conduct shall be considered."

Sexual abuse as per ST/SGB/2003/13 is defined as the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions. All sexual activity with a child (persons under the age of 18), is prohibited regardless of age of majority or age of consent locally and constitutes sexual abuse.

 

Sexual exploitation as per ST/SGB/2003/13 is defined as any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.

 

Sexual harassment as per ST/SGB/2019/8 refers to prohibited conduct in the workplace or in connection with work affecting United Nations staff and related personnel. In context of the United Nations, sexual harassment refers to prohibited behaviour perpetrated by United Nations staff or related personnel. It involves any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favor, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behavior of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

All genders can be victims of sexual harassment. Inequality, especially gender inequality drives sexual harassment, which is often used as a mechanism to assert power. Culture change can be fostered through increasing women’s representation, especially in leadership.

It is of importance that Women, in all their diversity, are in decision-making positions in the workplace and participate fully and equally. In particular, everyone needs to be included amongst the decision-makers leading the creation and implementation sexual harassment policies. The United Nations must lead by example in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 5 on women’s empowerment and gender equality.

The link between gender parity and sexual harassment has been underlined by many speakers of the Peer-to-Peer Learning Dialogues that UN Women has organized. Please refer to the publications summarizing the key findings of these events in the document library of this hub.

Harassment of any type is antithetical to the principles of the UN, and sexual harassment in particular undermines its credibility and degrades its staff. The UN Secretary-General and UN system leaders committed to a zero-tolerance approach to tackling sexual harassment, to strengthening victim-centred prevention and response efforts, and fostering a safe and inclusive working environment across the UN system. The UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB) established the CEB Task Force on Addressing Sexual Harassment within the Organizations of the UN system in November 2017, with the intention to develop a common United Nations system approach towards sexual harassment. 

The CEB Task Force is a UN internal mechanism that was established by the UN Secretary-General. Please refer to the resolutions below for the relevant information regarding its mandate.

 

A/74/16 - chap III sect A (CPC 59th session report)

609. The Committee noted with appreciation the efforts of CEB to address sexual harassment, including through the establishment of a task force, and recommended that the General Assembly request the Secretary-General, in his capacity as Chair of CEB, to continue to urge all participating organizations to take further steps to implement a zero-tolerance policy towards the problem.

 

A/73/16: Report of the Committee for Programme and Coordination – 58th session chap. III.A

161. The Committee highlighted that effectively addressing sexual harassment had fundamental implications for the credibility of the United Nations system and in that regard welcomed the zero-tolerance policy put in place by the Secretary-General, recommending that the General Assembly request the Secretary-General, in his capacity as Chair of CEB, to continue to urge all United Nations system organizations to make the issue a matter of priority

In its first phase of work, the Task Force created the fundamentals of a common UN approach by filling policy gaps. It established a uniform definition of sexual harassment and a system-wide Model Policy, by providing UN entities with prevention instruments like a Code of Conduct for UN system events and developing tools such as the Clear Check database to prevent the rehiring of perpetrators.

 

The Task Force's second phase of work for 2020-2021 was approved by the High-Level Committee on Management (HLCM) and aimed to drive culture change, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, through the following workstreams:

  1. Implement: support the roll-out of products endorsed by HLCM;
  2. Strengthen: advance a victim-centred approach to tackling sexual harassment;
  3. Learning and communication: raise awareness and promote instruments to combat harassment and discrimination across internal audiences;
  4. Outreach and knowledge sharing: engage actors from within and outside of the UN system to strengthen approaches to address sexual harassment; and
  5. Leadership and culture: foster organizational culture change to achieve a safe and inclusive work environment.

 

The workplan for the third and current phase of work of the Task Force was approved by the High-Level Committee on Management in April 2022, focusing on the following workstreams:

  1. Prevention and Behavior Science; which emphasizes the need for culture change in the UN as an action-oriented prevention measure;
  2. Victim Engagement and Support; which will focus on fostering a system-wide understanding of the principles of victim/survivor-centred approach to addressing sexual harassment, protective measures, and protection against retaliation within UN system entities;
  3. Data and Results; which strengthens an evidence-based approach to working on sexual harassment by measuring results and setting targets; and
  4. Enhanced Cooperation; which will enhance sustainable cooperation and partnership between agencies to better integrate the workforce across the UN system.

The Task Force has made significant progress in the areas of policy, victims’ and survivors’ rights, support and outreach, accountability and strengthening investigations, including through hiring specialist investigators. The Task Force has established a uniform definition of 'sexual harassment' and developed common principles to harmonize policy on sexual harassment across the UN system, through the UN system Model Policy on Sexual Harassment. The Task Force has also developed relevant tools such as the screening database “ClearCheck”, a Guide for Managers to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace, the Investigations Manual for the investigation of sexual harassment complaints, and the Code of Conduct to prevent harassment including sexual harassment at UN system events.

 

More recently, the Task Force has produced the principles to Advance a Victim-centred Approach to Sexual Harassment, the Rights and Dignity of Victims of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment: A Training Module on the Meaning and Application of a Victim-centred Approach to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse and Sexual Harassment, Making zero tolerance a reality: Peer-to-peer learning to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment in the UN system and beyond and Enhancing Cooperation: Peer-to-peer learning to prevent and eliminate sexual harassment in the UN system and beyond. These publications summarize the key findings of peer-to-peer learning dialogues and puts forward concrete recommendations for the UN-system to address sexual harassment.

 

A collection of the products and initiatives delivered by the Task Force since its establishment in 2017 can be found here. 

Under the current leadership of the Chair of the Task Force, Ms. Kelly T. Clements, and according to the High-Level Committee on Management endorsement in 2020, UN Women was nominated to co-lead the workstream on strengthened outreach and knowledge-sharing, together with the UN Secretariat. In 2022, UN Women was nominated to co-lead the efforts to enhance coordination across the UN system, together with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA). At UN Women, this work has been executed by the Office of the Focal Point for Women in the UN System.

 

The Office of the Focal Point for Women in the UN System at UN Women represents a network of nearly 500 UN Gender Focal Points (GFPs) in the CEB Task Force on Addressing Sexual Harassment in the UN system since 2018. The Office of the Focal Point for Women leads and coordinates this network and builds capacities to respond to cases of sexual harassment, as the network is a key stakeholder in mainstreaming the Task Force’s work into practice. Gender Focal Points and Focal Points for Women are agents of change who work on enhancing gender parity and creating enabling working environments in their respective entities, offices and departments across the UN. Therefore, it is important that each UN department, office, and mission have appointed Gender Focal Points, as stipulated in the  Secretary-General’s specific bulletin in this regard (ST/SGB/2008/12). The Office also reports on the ongoing efforts and progress made to address sexual harassment across the UN, as part of the UN Secretary-General’s report on the Improvement in the Status of Women that is prepared every two years. 

 

Moreover, UN Women's Ending Violence Against Women section and Human Resources department also support and share their expertise in the other workstreams of the Task Force, including on Prevention and Behavioral Science, Victim Engagement and Support, and Data and Results.