Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
DURING the just-ended 16 Days of Activism Against Gender- Based Violence, I was privileged to attend a workshop on sexual harassment conducted by the Women in News (WIN) at my office.
Well, most of us should know that sexual harassment is a common problem in workplace settings.
The sad part is that it spoils the mood and teamwork in a place of work because most of the time, victims suffer quietly, usually at the hands of superior tormentors.
Normally, one should be happy at work and look forward to going back the following day because a place of work is like a second home to many.
But the opposite is true for victims of sexual harassment, more so because their oppressors go unpunished.
Naturally, at a place of work we make friends and develop strong bonds with them because we spend a lot of time together and share many things, including food and personal issues. This kind of friendship has no boundaries in terms of gender.
However, certain workmates may cross the borderlines and engage in unwelcome sexual behaviour which the person on the receiving end may find offensive and humiliating.
Let me start by sharing the definition of sexual harassment to help us understand the nature and scope of the problem.
Sexual harassment is the unwanted and offensive behaviour of a sexual nature that violates a person’s dignity and makes them feel degraded, humiliated, intimidated or threatened, according to WIN and World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in their Sexual Harassment Handbook.
This could be physical, verbal or written.
Sexual harassment could happen at the office, or off-site at a place where workers are attending a work-related meeting, workshop or function.
In her presentation to the Zambia Daily Mail team, Caroline Phiri-Lubwika, the WIN advisory trainer, stated that sexual harassment at work can happen to both men and women, but women are the common victims.
She said sexual harassment is not about sex; but rather about power relations, meaning it happens where there are unequal power relations, for example between a superior and their subordinate or between an older employee and a younger employee.
However, perpetrators may also be peers and non-employees such as guests or clients of an organisation.
Victims often don’t report cases because, among other reasons, they are in doubt of what constitutes sexual harassment.
From Caroline’s presentation I learnt that physical behaviours of sexual harassment include actual or attempted sexual assault, kissing someone without permission, unwanted touching, unwanted holding of someone’s hand and unwanted requests for sexual favours.
The harassment may be non-verbal by way of repeated invasion of private space, sexual gestures with body, unwanted personal gifts, looking someone up and down, displaying sexually explicit posters or objects or publicly watching pornography and stalking someone.
Behaviours considered as verbal forms of sexual harassment include sexually suggestive remarks, making personal and disturbing comments about someone’s dress and physical appearance, unwanted social invitation, unsolicited sexual jokes and unwanted dirty jokes through social media or email.
WHAT EMPLOYERS MUST DO
-They must understand their obligations to protect their employees against sexual harassment at work.
-Develop an organisation’s sexual harassment policy.
– This should be complemented by clear guidelines to handle complaints of sexual harassment in the company
– The organisation should also develop strategies to provide support to victims of sexual harassment.
Further, preventive measures to stamp out sexual harassment in the organisation must be put in place.
During the workshop, we learnt that sexual harassment affects many journalists, majority of whom don’t actually report their harassers to anyone.
In a 2013-2014 global survey, 48 percent of female journalists had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their course of duty, but sadly 83 percent of these did not report the cases.
WIN carried out its own survey in 2017 of 119 women in countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East and North Africa.
Although the sample size of respondents was small it revealed worrisome trend of sexual harassment of women in the media industry.
About 64 percent were verbally harassed; about 24 percent victims were physically harassed; but only 29 percent of women who were sexually harassed reported the incidences.
Perhaps the question is, why don’t the majority of victims report their abusers for possible disciplinary action in the workplace or prosecution in court.
Of course, the first place of redress for a victim of sexual harassment should be one’s workplace before one could think of taking legal action if the offence is criminal in nature (e.g. rape or sexual touching).
But for a victim to speak out, one’s organisation needs to have a sexual harassment policy, with clear guidelines of how cases could be dealt with.
A sexual harassment policy is a must-have document for any organisation in Zambia because the laws of the land – Anti-GBV Act of 2011 and Gender Equity and Equality Act of 2015 – outlaw sexual harassment in this country.
Employers are therefore obliged to have sexual harassment policies which, if well implemented, would not only help to mete out punishment to offenders, but also act as a deterrent to future offenders.
Having a good sexual harassment policy could create a supportive environment for victims of abuse to report offensive/unwanted sexual advances by their superiors and peers.
Lack of such a policy means that the victim may suffer other negative repercussions if she happens to file a complaint against the abuser.
A supportive atmosphere at work could actually encourage victims to seek justice in a court of law should the nature of the offence warrant so.
But what we see in Zambia about a few courageous women who have attempted to prosecute sexual harassment is lack of support from the employers and witnesses.
This is exactly what can happen when an organisation lacks a sexual harassment policy.
In my view, if the law says sexual harassment is illegal, it means organisations are legally obligated to protect their workers against sexual harassment and ensure that perpetrators are punished.
But without a written law against sexual harassment, it means victims of abuse in an organisation will be at the mercy of their abusers.
If you show me an organisation where sexual harassment goes on unabated, I will show you one where productivity is low and mediocrity as well as unprofessionalism are the order of the day.
For example, if victims of sexual harassment have to give in to get a job, promotion or favours at work, it means not the best candidate will be rewarded.
It also means that promotions and opportunities at work will elude the best brains in the organisation. Instead, it is those who give in to sexual advances from bosses that would be ‘rewarded’ for nothing.
Similarly, if a good number of people in an organisation have low morale because the organisation can’t protect them from sexual harassment, they will find a way of retorting.
In the end it’s the whole organisation that suffers because the employer has neglected to develop a sexual harassment policy.
Much as the sexual harassment policy may help to protect victims against harassment, it can also create a conducive business environment in an organisation.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org/ email@example.com. Phone: 0211-221364/227793
Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA