Flanders to create independent system for reporting sexual harassment

Flanders to create independent system for reporting sexual harassment
Universities in Belgium have faced criticism for their handling of reports of transgressive behaviour. Credit: Belga

Flanders will set up an independent reporting point to process complaints of sexual harassment in an effort to change the current fragmented system, which currently leaves many victims not knowing where to turn.

Reports of sexual harassment have made headlines across Belgium over the last several weeks, from women being harassed on nights out to students and university staff members sharing testimonies of professors and doctorate students abusing their power and behaving inappropriately without reprimand.

In response to the reports of transgressive behaviour in the academic world, psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens and Professor Michel Maus, among others, called for an independent Flemish contact point for reporting such incidences.

"A university is by definition an institution where persons literally decide whether someone can 'succeed.' This creates a balance of power and, as is the case wherever there is power, abuse can occur. High time for an open debate," Maus said on Twitter.

Although internal reporting systems for such incidents remain vital because they can more quickly take measures to prevent such cases from happening in the future, an additional independent system could guarantee impartiality in a more effective way.

Simplifying system

On Tuesday, Flemish Minister of Co-existence, Bart Somers, announced that an independent reporting system will be set up as part of the new Flemish Human Rights Institute, which is expected to be up and running in March 2023 following Flanders' departure from the national human rights institution Unia.

The Gender Chamber, as part of the Flemish Ombuds Service, is currently responsible for dealing with reports of sexual harassment; however, many victims don't know how to report an incident to this body.

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"Today there is a separate body for gender discrimination. In the future, we want to bundle everything in one Human Rights Institute," Somers said. "In this way, we will put an end to the fragmentation and ensure that citizens know where they can turn."

He explained that the government will consult with the Gender Chamber and the universities to make the current workings more widely known.

"Additionally, it remains important, of course, to focus on prevention and criminal prosecution. An accessible reporting point must be part of a total approach."

Tackling all forms of discrimination

The contact point will not only be open for reports related to sexual harassment and transgressive behaviour, but it will also be competent to tackle all forms of discrimination.

"This is an improvement because currently, Unia is not competent for discrimination on the basis of gender. The independent Dispute Chamber will also ensure more equal opportunities," Somers said.

Flanders' new institute has been criticised by human rights organisations and Unia because complaints will be handled “primarily through mediation” and not in court. Cases can be referred to a Dispute Resolution Chamber where a non-binding judgement can be issued, but it is not possible to submit a direct complaint.

Somers stressed that under the Belgian system, very few discrimination and equal opportunities cases within the Flemish competencies have resulted in cases being taken to court.

Under the new Flemish system, an independent litigation chamber made up of judges and specialised lawyers will rule on the case if mitigation fails. This is similar to the system in the Netherlands, where the independent Disputes Chamber rules on some 120 complaints a year.

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