#VoiceToLead, Making Workplaces Safe for Nurses

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(International Nurses Day Special)

 On International Nurses Day on May 12, we are given time to celebrate and reflect on the incredible contribution that nurses make to healthcare worldwide. This year’s theme promotes ‘Health as a Human Right’, ensuring no matter the location, or setting, healthcare should be available to all. With this in mind, we must also consider the rights of the nurse. As an integral part of the healthcare system, why is it that nurses are significantly more likely to experience sexual harassment than in other professions?

In India, 46.58% of women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. This is further compounded in the nursing sector by the unique requirements of the profession. Nurses are exposed to a higher amount of physical contact with their patients. Additionally, a nurse’s working environment sees a mix of medical staff, patients and members of the public. This places them in a vulnerable position. They focus on the healthcare of patients, families and communities, typically placing emphasis on their approach to patient care. This ‘caring’ role is publicly perceived as more vulnerable and open to intimidation, leading to their adverse treatment.

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In India, 80% of women in the medical profession report sexual harassment at the workplace, nurses being the most harassed. In a study of 135 nurses working in Kolkata, 77 women reported 128 incidences of sexual harassment. This included verbal and psychological harassment, sexual gestures and exposure and unwanted touching. But where is this harassment coming from? Another study reported that physicians were the foremost perpetrators, harassing 37% of the study participants, followed by the patient’s relatives at 26%, and finally the patients themselves (16%).

Bristi Borgohain, a Martha Farrell Fellow researching sexual harassment in the nursing industry found that many nurses were unaware of the scope of sexual harassment. Many nurses only recognise physical harassment as problematic, ignoring the sexual gestures, verbal innuendo and unwanted exposures which also contribute to an unsafe workspace. Additionally, nurses are required round-the-clock. It was found that there are minimal provisions set up for safe transportation to and from work during these hours, compounding the likelihood of harassment for nurses.

Furthermore, reporting rates for sexual harassment are incredibly low. Across professions, less than 4% of women report cases of sexual harassment to the authorities in India. Within nursing, this has been attributed to the trauma nurses face on the job, giving them a ‘thicker skin’ and engendering them less likely to report. But ignoring these behaviours leads to a culture of acceptance and it is in these environments that women face greater forms of violence. This is further compounded by the contractual nature of nurses work. Nurses don’t feel comfortable reporting their experiences in fear they will lose their job.

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition Redressal) Act 2013 provides a robust framework for redressing sexual harassment in the workplace. It delineates a process for the formal sector, with Internal Complaints Committees and conciliation processes. However, according to a FICCI-EY November 2015 report, 36% of Indian companies are not compliant with the Act. Without widespread understanding and recognition of the issue, we leave our nurses in the dark. How can we promote healthcare as a human right without promoting the rights of nurses to be free from workplace sexual harassment?

International Nurses Day asks us to use the hashtag nurses as a #VoiceToLead. Let us also be a voice to lead, leading the charge to make workplaces safer for our nurses. Everyone has the right to healthcare, just as everyone has the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment.

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