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Sexual harassment: Crossing thin line

EMELDA MWITWA
SEXUAL harassment is a common problem in workplaces. Strangely, some potential perpetrators do not know when they are crossing the thin line between the normal hobnobbing between males and females and making unsolicited sexual advances.
I recently attended a workshop on sexual harassment in which some of the men were shocked to learn that what they considered normal friendly gestures to the womenfolk was actually sexual harassment. One of the men in the workshop actually remarked that: “Most of us then are guilty of sexually harassing women. These are things we normally do or say, but we do not know that we are actually sexually harassing anyone.” This was after our trainer from Women in News (WIN) cited some common behaviours such as squeezing of a woman’s hand or scratching one’s palm during a greeting as forms of non-verbal sexual harassment. The trainer also made reference to the unwanted holding of someone’s hand and making compliments about one’s body structure and looks that the recipient finds sexually offensive. She alluded to the common behaviours of sexual harassment as being physical and verbal, but it was mostly the non-verbal forms of sexual provocation that our male counterparts got shocked to see on the list of violations. Our trainer said all forms of sexual harassment – physical, verbal and non-verbal – were illegal and one could sue the harasser for stalking them even using body language. Apart from the indecent greeting, things like looking at someone up and down, making suggestive body gestures such as throwing a kiss, repeatedly licking your own lips in front of the opposite sex and, of course, winking at them qualify as sexual harassment behaviours.
Other behaviours that qualify as non-verbal sexual behaviours that one could sue a workmate over are repeated invasion of personal space, making sexual gestures with body, stalking someone, blocking some’s way, or giving them unsolicited personal gifts. One could also complain to the employer or take legal action against a workmate for sexual harassment on account of displaying sexually explicit objects and posters in the office. The men were shocked because what they knew as sexual harassment were mainly physical behaviours such as unwanted requests for sexual favours, kissing someone without permission or attempted sexual assault and the actual sexual assault. However, physical sexual harassment, according to our trainer, also includes what may look like innocent social behaviours in the office such as the unsolicited holding of some’s hand, massaging their neck, stroking someone’s body or any unwanted body touch. These are all common behaviours in workplaces and perpetrators often get away with it.  Some men actually openly touch their female counterparts or make sexually suggestive comments about them in front of other workmates. Victims of sexual harassment will normally tolerate repeated provocations of a sexual nature without making a formal complaint to their employers because indecent touch and sexually suggestive comments are common. Although offended, victims feel they can only make a case for sexual harassment at work if someone fondles their private part, or attempts to assault them sexually and when the physical sexual attack has taken place.
However, sexual harassment in workplaces comes in many disguised ways, even verbal ones, other than the common “I want to date you or take you out” request, mostly from a boss to their subordinate. Disguised forms of sexual harassment at work could come in form of unwanted jokes of a sexual nature, making kissing sounds, unsolicited questions about someone’s social life, unwanted sexual stories, unsolicited email or social media messages sent to the opposite sex. Unwanted telephone calls to a workmate of the opposite sex and making disturbing comments about someone’s body shape or dressing are also covert forms of verbal sexual harassment. Victims do not complain either because such forms of sexual harassment have become internalised social norms or perhaps some women are ignorant about the ulterior motives of randy male workmates. And these sad situations go on unabated in workplaces because many organisations lack sexual harassment policies. What this means is that sexual harassment is not properly defined in the workplace, so when it happens, especially that of a non-verbal nature, the victim can’t make a case against the perpetrator. Not having a sexual harassment policy also means that there are no clear guidelines in the company on how to handle complaints of sexual harassment. The implication is that an organisation will not provide support to victims of sexual harassment because, first of all, the offence is not recognised and, secondly, there are no clear guidelines on how to handle such grievances from staff. Therefore, members of staff will either endure sexual harassment quietly or will be victimised for fending off unwanted sexual advances from their superiors. One could also be victimised for attempting to file a complaint in an organisation where sexual harassment is not formally recognised as an offence.
A case in point is an incident at Mulungwe Coal Mine in Maamba where two women have allegedly been demoted by their supervisor for fending off his sexual advances. A Sunday Mail reporter who visited the mine recently reported that the two women complained that their supervisor approached them individually and proposed to sleep with them. One of the victims at the mine said when she refused to sleep with her boss, she was demoted from the position of dump truck driver and transferred to the crusher section. The other one said her boss got upset and stopped talking to her when she turned down his proposal for an intimate relationship. She too was demoted and re-assigned to the crusher. The two women complained that it was unfair that they were being punished for refusing to sleep with their boss. They also said that they reported their case to their area councillor and village headman, but have received no help. When I read this story, I was saddened because, obviously, the company has no sexual harassment policy, the reason why the victims had to report their cases to the headman and councillor.
Of course, we don’t expect that they could get any help from there because their randy supervisor is not answerable to the headman or councillor. If the mining firm had a sexual harassment policy, the matter could have been resolved internally and the supervisor in question punished, if found guilty. Certainly, the harassment of the two women will instil fear in the would-be victims of sexual harassment at the coal mine, and after that, all the victims will be gagged. Sadly, when victims of sexual harassment suffer quietly, the affected company also suffers. Randy supervisors may go scot-free, but organisations suffer repercussions in terms of low worker morale and, consequently, low productivity.

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