SEXUAL harassment (SH) has existed since women stepped into the men’s world of gainful employment and abandoned their role as full time custodians of family unit in the home.
Full time house work meant that the woman had less or no economic participation in society and this reinforced her subordinate status when compared to men.
Lack of economic resources and money renders women powerless and in turn this entrenches male supremacy.
When women started working, this meant an end to women’s reliance on men and this was perceived as a threat to male dominance over women and threat to patriarchy.
To ensure continuation of male supremacy, sexual harassment came into being.
Sexual harassment can be defined as deliberate and or repeated sexual advances by someone who has a higher position and those advances are only enjoyed by the perpetrator but are degrading, unwelcome, hostile and offensive to the person to whom they are directed. In most cases sexual harassment is a hidden act with no witness just like rape cases and the victim usually faces challenges in proving her case.
The other challenge that the victim may have is that on the face of it, sexual harassment may appear harmless to other co-workers if it is at work or other students if it is at a place of higher learning.
There are different types of sexual harassment at the work place ranging from non-contact conduct in extreme cases degrading physical contact conduct. The perpetrator may persistently wink at his junior female colleague making her feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. He may also whistle at the woman to get her attention and, thereafter, make sexual gestures that are unwelcome.
Other perpetrators may opt for physical contact like using their middle finger on the palm of the victim to sexually arouse her everytime they shake hands. Another example where there is physical contact is touching her on any part of the body, hugging, patting, kissing or “accidentally “bumping or colliding with the woman.
The perpetrator may send statements, drawings, pictures or pass jokes with sexual overtones repeatedly to the woman. Sexual harassment may also be in the form of a conduct, which may be interpreted by other people or be suggestive of a love relationship between the two, like leaning over the woman, calling her darling etc. when talking to her.
Others make telephone calls or send cellphone messages proposing love to the woman or requesting sexual favours in exchange for work related favour like promotion, salary raise or other perks like company car, etc.
There are instances where the perpetrator may indecently expose himself to entice the woman and in extreme cases she maybe sexually abused by being raped.
The perpetrator may create a business trip for him and the woman where he will take advantage of being alone with the victim and start sexually harassing her.
If the woman turns him down, she may be demoted, dismissed from work, transferred to a remote area or face a hostile atmosphere at work. Sexual harassment does not happen at work places only, it also occurs at places of higher learning like colleges and universities. Perpetrators may be lecturers who take advantage of the vulnerability of students like situations where there is economic hardships and the desperate urge to pass examinations.
The lecturer may propose love or make sexual advances to the student in exchange for a reward like paying fees, awarding her high marks for her assignments or ensuring that she passes her degree.
He may also promise to secure her rented accommodation or buy her expensive gifts. Students who turn them down may be humiliated in class, kicked out of rented apartments paid for by the lecturers involved, made to fail assignments and examinations or ordered to return the gifts bought in anticipation of the above the students may give in to these demands.
Perpetrators enjoy what they are doing and, therefore, at times they consider that their conduct is wrong.
In other instances, where the perpetrator knows that his conduct is unlawful, he may believe that he will not be caught because, as stated earlier in such cases there usually no witness, hence they believe that they will get away with it.
On the other hand if their actions come to light, they may escape by way bribery or using their influential positions to have the matter swept under the carpet. In the event that the above fails they may believe that the punishment for consequences of their action will be very light.
The affected people can seek remedies under labour laws and regulations. Legislation alone may not cure the problem as in some cases, the affected person may fear reporting due to her vulnerability, for example in a situation where it is a student against a lecturer or a married woman against her superior at work.
In the latter case a married woman may not report in order to protect her marriage and reputation because at times when crimes of a sexual nature occur, it is the woman who is blamed. The other reason for not reporting is fear of further humiliation and no one may believe her.
She may also have challenges in that the person whom she is laying a charge against is the head of that establishment to whom workers union representatives report to. In other instances, the reporting system maybe very cumbersome or unclear.
As long as fewer women occupy positions of power, it will not be easy to eradicate sexual harassment at work places and places of higher learning. It is a crime perpetrated by men who are in positions on women who occupy lower positions.
Despite challenges women have to be courageous and report such conduct so as to end sexual harassment. As ZWLA we encourage women to speak out so that they may be protected by the law or policies of where they work.