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Democrats introduce bill to combat sexual harassment at State Department

Democrats introduce bill to combat sexual harassment at State Department
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House Democrats on Wednesday introduced a bill aimed at combating sexual harassment and discrimination at the State Department.

The legislation, called the State Harassment and Assault Prevention and Eradication Act, seeks to ban forced nondisclosure or non-disparagement agreements and would increase training for sexual assault prevention, intervention and advocacy.

It also would establish an Office of Employee Advocacy to provide counseling, legal advice, representation, a 24/7 international hotline and employee advocates to assist in the complaint process.

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The legislation also would require annual reports to Congress on claims and disciplinary action taken to hold perpetrators accountable and surveys to evaluate the impact of the new policies.

The measure was introduced by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelIs Trump a better choice for Jewish voters than Biden? Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches House Democrats push forward on probe of Pompeo's political speeches MORE (D-N.Y.) and Reps. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroFormer DNC finance chairman Henry Muñoz: Latinos 'need to lead ourselves' Overnight Defense: Trump says he's leaving Walter Reed, 'feeling really good' after COVID-19 treatment | White House coronavirus outbreak grows | Dems expand probe into Pompeo speeches House Democrats push forward on probe of Pompeo's political speeches MORE (D-Texas) and Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierPentagon puts on show of force as questions circle on COVID-19 outbreak Candymakers meet virtually with lawmakers for annual fly-in, discuss Halloween safety COVID-19 sparks national security concerns with top brass in quarantine MORE (D-Calif.), co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

The lawmakers said the legislation was inspired by an open letter published in November 2017 to the national security community calling out sexual harassment, assault, abuse and discrimination. The letter was signed by 223 women in the field.

“We, too, are survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse or know others who are,” the women, who included current and former diplomats, civil servants, service members and development workers, wrote in the letter. “The institutions to which we belong or have served all have sexual harassment policies in place. Yet, these policies are weak, under enforced, and can favor perpetrators. ... How will you protect, empower, and defend the women who serve our nation?”

Engel on Wednesday said the bill “would bring necessary changes, requiring the State Department to invest in preventative training and provide resources to victims."

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"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,” he added.

“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,” Speier said in a separate statement. “It’s our duty to ensure that the only enemies they need to worry about are outside their ranks.”

Castro added that the “global #metoo movement has shone a spotlight on these systemic failures, including at the U.S. State Department, and it’s long past time to take action with real reforms."

A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the pending legislation but said that employees are protected against sexual harassment and discrimination through the Office of Civil Rights where they can file Equal Employment Opportunity complaints and that are further protected by the NO FEAR Act.

The spokesperson also said the Department has internal anti-harassment policies prohibiting sexual and gender-based harassment and protections on the bases of race, color, national origin, religion, disability, age and genetic information that is overseen by the Office of Civil Rights. 

“We take any and all allegations of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously at the Department,” the spokesperson said.