A free legal advice line has been launched to support women experiencing sexual harassment at work, with actor and activist Emma Watson urging women to understand their rights to create safer workplaces for all.
The new advice service, which claims to be the first of its kind in England and Wales, aims to plug a gap in the availability of legal advice by allowing women to access the help and support they need to hold their employer and harasser to account.
The Sexual Harassment at Work Legal Advice Line will operate limited hours at first and will be staffed by two female lawyers at a time, provided by charity Rights of Women.
Rights of Women, which is run by female legal professionals, said there were plans to extend the hours as more volunteers were recruited and trained.
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Deeba Syed, senior legal officer for Rights of Women, said: “This advice line’s purpose is to empower women to exercise their legal rights in the workplace.
“By advising women about their legal options and increasing their understanding of equalities and discrimination law, we will be able to help them make informed choices about next steps, including how to navigate the legal system with confidence.”
Syed added that the charity was also working to address the structural problems she said put the burden on victims, making it difficult to come forward in cases of sexual harassment at work – a sentiment echoed by the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee (WEC) in a report last week.
The WEC called for the burden of proof in discrimination and harassment cases to fall on employers rather than the victims, after its report found businesses were “not afraid to discriminate” because they knew they were unlikely to be held to account.
In a report on its year-long investigation into the enforcement of the 2010 Equality Act, the WEC said the current approach, which relies on individual victims initiating legal action, was “no longer fit for purpose”, and a new strategy was needed to provide a sustainable deterrent for employers guilty of “institutional and systemic discrimination”.
The legal advice hotline is being funded by campaign group Time’s Up and charity Rosa, as well as donations from the public and celebrities including Watson.
Watson, who is also UN Women’s goodwill ambassador, said: “Understanding what your rights are, how you can assert them and the choices you have if you’ve experienced harassment is such a vital part of creating safe workplaces for everyone, and this advice line is such a huge development in ensuring that all women are supported, wherever we work.”
She added that it was “completely staggering” that the advice line was the only one of its type in England and Wales, citing recent research by the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project that found more than half (52 per cent) of women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.