Three House Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday introduced legislation aimed at strengthening anti-harassment, assault and retaliation policies at the US State Department.
Reps. Joaquin Castro, Jackie Speier and Eliot Engel unveiled the State Harassment and Assault Prevention and Eradication (SHAPE) Act of 2020 to “facilitate stronger anti-harassment and discrimination policies, survivor care, and accountability at the State Department.”
The legislation comes nearly three years after more than 200 women who work on national security issues raised the alarm about sexual harassment and assault in their field and months after an April US Commission on Civil Rights report recommended the State Department institute a number of changes to its sexual harassment protocols.
The SHAPE Act would require the department “to develop a comprehensive policy on the prevention of and response to harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, and related retaliation,” establish an “Office of Employee Advocacy” to assist victims and provide a 24/7 hotline, and require both semiannual surveys of the department’s workplace culture and an annual report to Congress “on claims and disciplinary action taken to hold perpetrators accountable, as well as climate survey results.”
It also calls for the State Department to implement “standardized sexual assault protocols,” which include access to trained victim advocate, training for regional security officers in sexual assault investigative techniques, and the requirement anyone alleging misconduct has access to alternate work assignments or paid leave.
In addition, the act “outlaws forced nondisclosure or non-disparagement agreements in employment contracts and settlement or separation agreements.”
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the legislation, but said the department takes “any and all allegations of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” They noted the department has internal anti-harassment policies and noted those “who feel that they are the victim of discrimination or harassment may choose to file an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint through the Department’s Office of Civil Rights.”
“Any act of harassment violates our basic values of respect for the individual and will not be tolerated. Acts of harassment not only erode the moral integrity of the Department, but threaten our mission of promoting and demonstrating our democratic values to advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world,” the spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.
‘We, too, are survivors’
In November 2017, 223 women signed an open letter entitled #metoonatsec, writing, “We, too, are survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse or know others who are.”
They wrote that many women had been held back or driven out of the national security field by “men who use their power to assault at one end of the spectrum and perpetuate – sometimes unconsciously – environments that silence,demean, belittle or neglect women at the other.”
“Assault is the progression of the same behaviors that permit us to be denigrated, interrupted, shut out, and shut up. These behaviors incubate a permissive environment where sexual harassment and assault take hold,” they wrote. “And it’s time to make it stop.”
The letter called on national security agencies, think tanks, universities, and the contractors who support them “to take a comprehensive set of actions to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.”
Speier, a California Democrat who is co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, said in a statement to CNN that they are “committed to ensuring that this viral online moment, launched by 223 brave women who stepped forward to share their painful experiences knowing the grave risk it posed to their careers, becomes a lasting movement for long overdue change.”
“Many of these women and men are serving in warzones or equally dangerous territories. They do so for long stretches of time without access to their loved ones. It’s our duty to ensure that the only enemies they need to worry about are outside their ranks,” she said.
Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said the bill “would bring necessary changes, requiring the State Department to invest in preventative training and provide resources to victims.”
“It would also ensure the Department is upholding its responsibility to protect our public servants, including many women who for years have faced not only harassment and discrimination, but also cultural and institutional failure within national security agencies that are unwilling to protect them,” the New York Democrat said.
Castro, a Texas Democrat who is vice chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said that the “global #metoo movement has shone a spotlight on these systemic failures, including at the US State Department, and it’s long past time to take action with real reforms.”
He noted that “the remote nature of a diplomat’s work also makes them more vulnerable and too often their complaints of sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination are not adequately addressed, and victims lack support.”
Fear of retaliation
An April 2020 US Commission on Civil Rights report, which examined efforts to address workplace sexual harassment across the federal government and also specifically evaluated NASA and the State Department, found this to be the case.
It found a number of shortcomings in the State Department’s existing protocols.
“A combination of complex processes, inadequate accountability at senior levels, and a lack of training and other issues at the State Department allow repeat offenders to continue to abuse,” it said. “Many women at the State Department fear that they will suffer retaliation if they come forward to report harassment.”
“It is important that State Department leadership, including the Secretary, direct and ensure that the culture of State workplaces globally is to have zero tolerance for sexual harassment, meaningful access to fair processes where claims are asserted, and no tolerance for retaliation,” the report recommended.