Europe

EU parliament members demand action on sexual harassment

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Media captionAn MEP's assistant catalogued three years of harassment in the parliament

Jeanne Ponté had only been in her job as an assistant to a French member of the European Parliament for two weeks when it happened for the first time.

"During a conference he was watching me with a lot of insistence," she says, recalling the behaviour of one German MEP back in 2014.

"After a while I was relieved because I didn't see him anymore… [but] he was waiting for me at the exit.

"He stopped me walking past and put his arms around my waist, asking me if I was new."

It was the first time Jeanne, now 27, would experience sexual harassment or sexist comments in her job at the European Parliament.

It prompted her to keep a diary of future incidents. Three years on, she has recorded nearly 50 cases involving her and her colleagues, ranging from sexist comments to physical touching and intimidation.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The parliament's existing anti-harassment committee deals with any allegations

Jeanne is one of several female staff members who have spoken out against sexual harassment in the European Parliament in the wake of the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

She has been closely supported by her MEP, Edouard Martin, who has joined her in campaigning for change.

"I am horrified by what she has gone through," he said. "We need to find a way to better protect assistants, interns and other administrative staff."

During a debate about sexual harassment at the European Parliament on Wednesday, several MEPs held up 'Me Too' placards in the chamber in solidarity with victims and to demonstrate that they had also had negative experiences.

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Image caption The 'me too' campaign went viral after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted about it amid widespread allegations in Hollywood

Among them was Terry Reintke, a Green MEP from Germany, who said she was shocked by the intensity of the harassment described in some of the women's stories.

She believes that victims in the parliament are still afraid to make official complaints.

"The stigma is still so high," she says.

"We need to do more to encourage women to come forward. It's a general problem that women who report these incidents are still not being trusted - their experiences of assault and harassment are not trusted."

Ms Reintke and her MEP colleagues at the European Parliament have written a letter calling for an external investigation into sexual harassment at the institution in response to the allegations.

The letter is addressed to the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and asks for a special dedicated committee on sexual harassment to be set up, and for legal and medical support to be provided to victims.

The letter calls for mandatory training on gender awareness and harassment for all parliamentary staff. It also asks for male MEPs and staff in particular to "show solidarity with victims by disassociating themselves from, and denouncing such behaviour whenever it occurs".

Edouard Martin agrees it is everyone's responsibility to tackle the issue.

"I am not proud to say it now, but I have been part of conversations where sexist comments have been made,' he says.

"I should have taken a stand and said that those comments were unacceptable… we need to stop normalising this behaviour."

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Image caption The French Socialist Party MEP was elected in 2014

The parliament's existing anti-harassment committee deals with all forms of harassment.

But it consists mostly of MEPs with no independent experts - a set-up that many believe does not go far enough in providing the right support to victims.

Catherine Bearder, head of the committee, says that assistants and other staff are represented, but that victims just do not want to come forward.

She says this is particularly a problem for assistants who worry about the impact of reporting sexual harassment on their careers.

"We must get better at encouraging the victims to come forward by providing guarantees they will not lose their job," she says.

Part of the problem is that MEPs personally choose their assistants - a situation which Ms Reintke believes makes it even more difficult for victims to report incidents of concern.

"There is such a direct relationship between MEP and assistants… there is a procedure in place for when an MEP wants to let a staff member go, but it's still the case that they can ask to terminate your contract if and when they so wish."

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