It is time we become our own leaders and put an end to sexual harassment

By Irene Charnley

Sexual harassment, one of the most pervasive and prevalent challenges of our Rainbow Nation, has been recognised as a scourge, plague and menace, but is tolerated in our culture, where many men consider themselves superior to women.

Office Harassment
Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

This scourge, a product of socially reproduced gender discrimination indoctrinated through social norms and mores, has become an inevitable reality of what many women go through in our country.

Women are vulnerable to violence at every stage of their lives from the time they are born to the day they die.

As we mark the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (GBV), we are reminded that sexual harassment is an off-shoot, an extension and part and parcel of GBV, which should be addressed globally. We can’t afford to look the other way.

Say no to silence 

The 16 days campaign, which started on the 25 November and ends on 10 December under the UN Women’s inspired global theme “Orange the World: End violence against women now”, and the local one, “The Year of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke – 16 Days of Activism – moving from awareness to accountability”, means the involvement of all stakeholders in the mobilisation against violence against women, especially in the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic, is now more than ever essential.

Women and stakeholders should and must speak out about the various encounters of sexual exploitation and abuse they experience in public and private spaces and say no to the silence.

These days headlines are abuzz with sexual harassment scandals. Some of the perpetrators are renowned politicians or businessmen whose power in society jeopardises all efforts to bring justice to the survivors.

Often, evidence against these perpetrators has been destroyed through bribing the institutions of justice and letting the perpetrators walk free in communities, or even, having victims ostracised. 

It is encouraging that to coincide with the 16 days of Activism against gender-based violence and femicide, Employment and Labour Minister Thulas Nxesi has announce the country’s ascension to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 190 (C190), the first international treaty to recognise the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence, femicide and harassment.

We are happy Parliament ratified C190 and the department has begun the process to ensure that all our laws are in compliance it and to provide the necessary amendments where needed to curb the GBV scourge.

We are glad the National Economic Development and Labour Council is working with the Decent Work Country Programme Task Team on a code on sexual harassment.

Indeed, while only eight countries – Argentina, Ecuador, Italy, Fiji, Mauritius, Namibia, Somalia, and Uruguay – have ratified the convention, the truth is, ratification is needed from many more countries to effectively address GBVF on a global level and advance women’s human rights.

On our continent, regional bodies such as the African Union should work closely with governments to encourage them to ratify C190 and establish regional standards to guarantee the safety of all by eliminating gender-based violence, femicide and harassment.

Today, the relevance of the ratification of C190 and its implementation is even more urgent considering the impact of Covid-19, which has reshaped where work happens and its impact on risks and vulnerabilities in the lives of women.

Three types of sexual harassment in the workplace 

While it is encouraging that through C190, legislations, laws, lobby groups, countries and organisations are becoming more aware of women’s struggle to become recognised as capable and to enjoy equal opportunities as enshrined in our Constitution, women continue to face verbal and physical harassment on a daily basis everywhere, especially at home, at work, on the streets and public transportation. 

As Professor Bonita Meyersfeld wrote recently in Daily Maverick: “One of the most devastating aspects of sexual violence is how disempowering it can be. And let me be clear: sexual violence includes sexual harassment.”

During these 16 days of activism and every day, let us remember that sexual harassment is an extension of gender-based violence. Let us look at sexual harassment at work.

Human resource experts define three basic types of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The first, sexual coercion is when someone with authority or who has power to control the victim’s job or future, demands that the employee submit to sexual requests or be fired, demoted or passed over for promotion.

Sexual coercion at work involves situations where one’s career prospects are linked to sexual favours: “sleep with me or you’re fired” or “sleep with me if you want a promotion” or “sleep with me if you want a job”.

The second kind of sexual harassment is called hostile environment. This kind of harassment occurs when a supervisor, co-worker or another person with whom the victim is in contact on the job creates an abusive work environment or interferes with the employee’s work performance because of the person’s gender.

Psychologists say this kind of harassment includes discussion of sexual activities, unnecessary touching, and comments on physical attributes, indecent gestures, hostile physical conduct and offensive language.

According to the UN’s Sexual Harassment of Women Report, the third type of sexual harassment, by far the most common form of sexual harassment, is gender harassment: “verbal and non-verbal behaviours that convey hostility, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender”.

The report says this takes the form of demeaning jokes or comments about women, including comments that they do not belong in leadership positions, or are not smart enough to succeed. 

It can also include sabotaging women’s work or careers, and denigrating them, often with crude language based on their gender.

There is no doubt that sexual harassment damages the work lives of women as they try to cope and escape these abusive situations. Psychologists say when women are sexually harassed their job satisfaction declines, they find their work more stressful, and their productivity and performance declines.

The sexually harassed may withdraw from their work, taking more time off, using sick leave, being late to work or meetings, missing meetings, making excuses to get out of work, and neglecting tasks. Some will simply resign.

Eradicating sexual harassment

So what can be done to eradicate sexual harassment?

First and foremost, we need gender-sensitive education in schools and tertiary institutions where activities and exercises can challenge students’ reasoning and expose them to different situations regarding issues of gender.

Teaching gender equality in schools provides a base for students’ understanding which they will then carry into their lives beyond the educational system into the workplace. 

In the workplace, companies should partner with NGOs to host seminars or workshops on sexual harassment from local experts’ points of view armed with real-life experiences and developed knowledge on the subject.

At work, employers need a policy that prohibits sexual harassment and provides clear understanding of what is expected and what the consequences are. Also needed is a grievance procedure, so someone who feels harassed has somewhere immediately to go and have the complaint investigated.

Whether your company is big or small, there is need to have a HR policy that addresses sexual harassment. Furthermore, if strong leadership is in place, with leaders who lead by example, then sexual harassment will become an issue of the past.

Last, we know dealing with sexual harassment should not be limited to organisations, universities and schools because change starts with each individual. Therefore, harassers and their behaviours should be punished and not be protected and every effort must be made to expose it at every level and to familiarise people with the prevalence of sexual harassment.

Indeed, let us understand that whether through 16 days of activism against GBVF, that we must not just demand change we must insist on it. We cannot tolerate a situation where another generation of people will experience multiple forms of GBV. These values are enshrined in our Constitution.

Change in social behaviour cannot happen overnight, especially not in a society that puts women in secondary societal and economic positions and portrays them as the weaker sex.

I want to conclude with a brief but powerful excerpt from a seminal Constitutional Court judgment delivered by Justice Sisi Khampepe in June 2021.

She wrote: “Sexual harassment occurs at the intersection of gender and power, producing a potent stench of subordination, disempowerment and inequality that so seeps through the fabric of our society that it stains its core.”

During these 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence and beyond, let us all acknowledge that equality and shared prosperity is at the heart of national progression.

A culture of gender-based violence, femicide and sexual harassment erodes our common humanity and is our shared challenge to eradicate it. It is time we all become our own leaders and put an end to it.

– Irene Charnley is a successful businesswoman and President of the International Women’s Forum of South Africa, a powerful organisation of 7,000 accomplished women from 33 nations on six continents.

This article was first published by News24 (6 December – Written by Irene Charnley)