The Health Ministry has refrained from releasing a new procedure for preventing and handling sexual harassment among health care system employees, despite having worked on the regulations for four years.
Dr Lior Shahar, head of the national council on women's health, says that while the health ministry claimed that the issue was in its "final stretch," and that a "circular to prevent sexual assault among the staff would be released soon," nothing has materialized.
Shahar announced her resignation last week, stating that this was not the first time the ministry had made such promises in vain – and that she had given up hope that the procedure would ever be released.
“I fought for three years with the Health Ministry just for them to acknowledge that such a procedure was even needed,” she said, and that an agreement was only reached a year ago on the need for the regulations to be changed.
"They told us that within a month it would be issued, but it simply didn’t happen," she said. Repeated promises followed, but Shahar says that time and time again, there were no results.
The work on the regulations began in 2018, at the initiative of the National Council on Women’s Health, which operates under the auspices of the Health Ministry, and the Association of Rape Crisis Centers.
The chairwoman of the council, Prof. Naama Constantini, established the committee and appointed Shahar to head it. Since the establishment of the committee, Shahar has received numerous complaints from health care system employees about incidents of harassment, exploitation of status, humiliation and misogyny.
- Health System Could Shut Four Wards for Sexual Assault Victims
- Israeli Gynecologist Arrested on Suspicion of Raping, Harassing Patients
- Israel Fails Sexual Assault Victims, Forcing Some to Hurt Themselves to Get Help
Some of the testimony collected by Shahar was reported in Haaretz Hebrew edition in April 2021, and at the time, she said the medical establishment minimized its cooperation with the committee.
Following the report, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz claimed that after years of "unnecessary foot-dragging, the important procedures for preventing sexual assault were advanced, and will be released for public comment within a week."
But, Shahar says, "words are one thing and actions are another."
Activists involved in the matter say that the Health Ministry has been claiming for years that the law to prevent sexual harassment, which passed in 1998, is inadequate for dealing with sexual assault within the healthcare system. However, female employees, from students to senior physicians, describe a different reality. They denounce the organizational cultural and internal hierarchy of these institutions, which they say creates an environment in which filing a sexual assault complaint could jeopardize a woman's career – and rarely results in a proper and adequate response.
Orit Sulitzeanu, the executive director of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, believes that “the Health Ministry’s foot-dragging is insufferable, infuriating and testifies clearly that no one really cares to deal with this difficult problem.”
The ministry is looking away instead of protecting and looking out for employees who experienced sexual harassment and assault, Sulitzeanu adds. The Israeli health care system is a leader in terms of the number of sexual assault complaints that have been filed due to a number of reasons: irregular working hours, long shifts in wards and physical contact.
"The fact that it is taking years to adopt such a simple procedure raises major suspicions that employees are simply being abandoned,” she adds.
The Health Ministry said that it has been "a standard-bearer for the importance of preventing sexual harassment" and is working on ways to promote that cause, including writing a circular to "prevent sexual harassment between health care provider and patient, building a position in the ombudsman's office for medical professionals, researching and building a training program to prevent harassment in hospitals, and more.
“We hope the additional efforts will push the system to achieve the goals of safety and a respectful environment for all employees and those receiving care in the system,” the Health Ministry added.