Monitoring Workplace Practices and Enforcing Sexual Harassment Law
last updated November 1, 2003

Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Portugal, Lithuania, South Africa, Sweden and the United States are just a few of the countries which have set up equal opportunity commissions or ombudsmen and parliamentary groups responsible for monitoring and improving the status of women. These entities actively monitor workplace practices relating to sexual harassment, enforce sexual harassment laws and coordinate policy-making initiatives on sexual harassment issues. From International, Regional and National Developments in the Area of Violence Against Women 1994-2003, Addendum 1 to the 2003 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, E/CN.4/2003/75/Add.1 (Feb. 2003)(PDF and Word, 397 pages).  Setting up an equal opportunity commission and women's parliamentary caucus and hiring staff with expertise in the dynamics of sexual harassment is one step a government can take (1) to fulfill its obligations under international law to prevent all forms of sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, and (2) to overcome barriers to the effective enforcement of sexual harassment law.


Both the European Union and the Council of Europe advocate for the creation of an agency, commission or ombudsmen charged with monitoring workplace practices, investigating complaints and enforcing sexual harassment law.

The European Parliament and Council require that each European Union Member State take the following steps prior to October 5, 2005: 

  • designate and make the necessary arrangements for a body or bodies for the promotion, analysis, monitoring and support of equal treatment of all persons without discrimination on the grounds of sex . These bodies may form part of agencies charged at national level with the defense of human rights or safeguard of individuals' rights; and 
  • ensure that the competences of these bodies include: (a) without prejudice to the right of victims and of associations, organizations or other legal entities referred to in Article 6(3), providing independent assistance to victims of discrimination in pursuing their complaints about discrimination; (b) conducting independent surveys concerning discrimination; (c) publishing independent reports and making recommendations on any issue relating to such discrimination.

From Directive 2002/73/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 Sept. 2002 amending Council Directive 76/207/EEC on the implementation of the principle of equal treatment for men and women as regards access to employment, vocational training and promotion, and working conditions. (PDF, 6 pages).

In May 2001, the Council of Europe published a Handbook on National Machinery to Promote Gender Equality and Action Plans: Guidelines for Establishing and Implementing National Machinery to Promote Equality with Examples of Good Practice, 2001. This document contains a broad discussion of national approaches to promoting equality, including examples of good practices in Finland and Sweden. In particular, the handbook recommends setting up parliamentary committees as well as government agencies with expertise in sex discrimination, including sexual harassment. The role of a parliamentary committee would include promoting legislation on sexual harassment and monitoring its implementation. The role of a commission, ombudsmen or agency devoted to equality issues could encompass efforts to guide or assist victims of sexual harassment to bring complaints before the entity or another authority, investigation of such complaints, enforcement of sexual harassment laws and research and reporting on sexual harassment practices.

United States

Since 1965, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has had a role in enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. law that prohibits many forms of discrimination in employment, including discrimination based on sex. When the U.S. courts recognized sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII, the EEOC began to entertain complaints involving sexual harassment. If in investigating a complaint, the EEOC determines that there is "reasonable cause" to believe that discrimination has occurred, the agency attempts to "conciliate" a sexual harassment complaint by facilitating a voluntary resolution between the individual making the complaint and the employer/harasser. If such a resolution is not reached, the EEOC may bring suit in federal court against the employer/harasser or may issue a right-to-sue-notice to the complainant permitting she or he to sue the employer/harasser in court. From EEOC Enforcement Activities. The EEOC is also involved in the following activities that it considers to be vital components in the agency's mission to eradicate employment discrimination:

  • reporting to the U.S. Congress and other U.S. governmental agencies on sexual harassment complaints made with the agency, 
  • preparing a National Enforcement Plan which addresses, among other things, sexual harassment law enforcement, 
  • publishing recommendations on the best sexual harassment policies, programs and practices in the private sector, and 
  • through outreach, education and technical assistance, encouraging knowledge about individual rights among employees and compliance with anti-discrimination laws among employers and employer groups.

From Best EEOC Practices; and U.S. EEOC National Enforcement Plan.

South Africa

The government of South Africa has created two entities that are involved in sexual harassment monitoring, enforcement and policy-making. In accordance with the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 2000 (pdf, 19 pages), the South African Human Rights Commission (1) assists sexual harassment complainants in instituting proceedings in equality court, particularly complainants who are disadvantaged, (2) conducts investigations into sexual harassment cases and makes recommendations as directed by the court regarding persistent contraventions of the act or cases of harassment referred to them by an equality court and (3) requests regular reports from the department of justice and constitutional development regarding the number of sexual harassment cases and the nature and outcome of these cases. In cooperation with the Commission on Human Rights, the South African Commission on Gender Equality addresses issues relating to sexual harassment as well. The functions of this commission include research on sexual harassment for the benefit of parliament and other authorities and education and investigations relating to sexual harassment. See Commission on Gender Equality Act 1996.