Are Women Safe in the Workplace?
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that women have been facing in society. It is defined as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”. It is a common form of discrimination that women have faced in the work place. Particularly, in organisations that are male dominated, women have often been left vulnerable and dependant on the goodwill of their male bosses for promotions and retention. Faced with the possibility of losing a job or remaining at the bottom of the organogram, women have often been pressurised into remaining quiet or succumbing to the demands of sexually abusive superiors.
Earlier this year, representatives from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions issued a statement that there was rampant sexual harassment of female workers in the banking sector. We sat down with the Vice president of Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Mr Peter Mutasa and the Gender Co-ordinators for the ZCTU and Zimbabwe Banks and Allied Workers Union (ZIBAWU ), Ms Fiona Magaya and Ms Bernice Maluleke for a discussion to obtain an understanding of this pertinent matter affecting women in the workplace.
Mufaro Chamunorwa (MC): Briefly tell us about the findings of your survey on sexual harassment in the workplace. (what forms of sexual abuse were reported and which ones were the most common)
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: ZIBAWU assisted by the ZCTU ran a sexual harassment campaign across various banks and during that campaign we realised that a lot of employees, in particular those in the banking industry, were unaware of what sexual harassment was or what their rights were. In many cases, those who were aware and had been harassed were unable to report the abuse.
Therefore we conducted a survey to assess how deep the problem of sexual harassment ran and why it was not being reported. Out of 132 employees who were interviewed and participated in the survey, 61% were female. 31% of the women indicated that they had been victims of sexual harassment or had witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. Out of the individuals who indicated that they had been victims of sexual harassment, only 34% had reported these cases.
MC: What do you think is the cause of such a culture of abuse of authority and abuse of employees, especially women?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: Our culture in Zimbabwe remains somewhat patriarchal. Certain aspects of our socialisation condone sexual harassment. Women often do not have sexual autonomy and from a young age they are groomed to be submissive and trained on how to please men. Some even argue that the culture of ‘lobola’ or payment of ‘damages’ are some traditions that entrench the subordination of women. This socialisation does not end in the family, in marriages and homes, but it filters into the workplace as well and women find their rights ignored and violated.
We have an environment where sexist remarks or stares that make a woman feel uncomfortable are considered to be “innocent” yet it still is sexual harassment if it is unwanted. A lot of victim blaming also occurs where the victim’s dress, lifestyle and private life is scrutinised and her credibility questioned in such a way that she ends up being accused of bringing it on herself. In the end sexual harassment is not taken seriously and it is not seen as violation of the sexual rights of women.
MC: It seems that a lot of women are suffering silently. Why do they not speak out against their perpetrators? Don’t we have authorities to which these cases can be reported in anonymity and follow up action taken?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: Out of the cases of sexual harassment that were noted during our survey, the reasons why the women in question did not report to the relevant authorities were that:
- They did not want to lose their jobs
- Their cases had been swept under the rug by their superiors
- There were previous cases that had not been taken seriously within the workplace
- The victims were afraid of victimisation or reprisal
- They were unsure of the reporting process
- The sexual harassment policy of their workplace was not effective
We do have platforms such as trade unions and even the police, to which sexual harassment can be reported. Civil and criminal cases can be opened against the perpetrator. However people are not coming up. A lot of stigma is still associated with reporting sexual harassment for the victims. The victim might be blamed for “bringing it on themselves”. The victim’s family might not even support her and may ask her how she put herself in the situation. In the courts of law, the victim is subject to harsher scrutiny than the perpetrator himself. The experience may be humiliating and she may be forced to re-live the experience through extensive testimonies and cross examining by the defence attorney. Anonymity also can’t be guaranteed because once a matter is reported, the victim has to testify in a hearing.
MC: In your organisations, what measures do you have in place to assist your members who may report on such sexual harassment cases and how effective are they?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: Our members can report sexual harassment cases and we can assist them in raising them with their employers and also filing civil cases with the courts of law. If rape has taken place, we can help them file a criminal case. An employer commits an unfair labour practice if they fail to take the necessary steps to redress an environment of sexual harassment when it has come to their attention or where they reasonably should have foreseen it. Therefore we can file a civil liability case against a negligent employer as well.
What renders these measures ineffective however is that a lot of victims have been unwilling to speak up for the reasons we mentioned already.
MC: What practical steps are necessary for these measures to be improved?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: The most critical step will be to increase awareness of what sexual harassment is, how it affects us all and what victims can do about it. Currently there is a gap where employers do not have sufficient anti-harassment policies. The Human Resources department of every organisation should take cases seriously instead of sweeping them under the rug. The Human Resources department should be a place at which the employee feels protected and comfortable enough to share their grievances.
Individuals should also be sensitised about what sexual harassment is and that they have rights that protect them. A lot of survivors do not know that if they are courageous enough, they can actually sue their employer for not rectifying sexual harassment cases in the work place. If their HR department does not act they can engage their labour union and the police and fight for justice.
MC: I read through the comments that were posted to the general public with regards to the article in the Herald. A sentiment that was expressed quite often was that women have a choice to say yes or no. How about ensuring that the question does not come up in the first place because given the structural and class struggles women seem not have a choice either way?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: Such sentiments are some of the reasons why victims do not feel comfortable about coming forward. We have husbands failing to support their wives when they come up in the open. We have management failing to believe that a ‘respected’ colleague would abuse a subordinate.
In Zimbabwe particularly, the opportunities for employment have been very narrow due to the harsh economic crisis. Furthermore with the Labour Act amendments, nothing has been done to curtail job insecurity and the impact of this is being felt more by females than male counterparts. A woman who is looking for a job is vulnerable to sexual harassment in the promise of a job. Women who already have jobs may tolerate sexual advances in order to put food on their families’ tables because they fear losing their jobs.
Women are still fighting a class struggle against men who still hold the majority of the key positions of authority in organisations. They are facing men with access to power that they can use to abuse subordinates.
MC: Sexual harassment affects women in the workplace because in infringes on their rights to body autonomy and sexual rights. Power relations are also affected as interactions between colleagues will be based on sexual encounters rather than professionalism. To what extent does this affect women’s performances and potential professional growth? How does the matter of sexual harassment affect us all, including those who have not been victims of it, especially when the perpetrators are not prosecuted?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: Sexual harassment impacts on productivity of the employees. It can lead to absenteeism of survivors affected, demotivation, depression and this definitely has a negative impact on the employee. The perpetrators stifle employees and the productivity of the company itself. Incompetent people are appointed and the company bears the cost of women taken along on business trips for personal reasons not business.
If the perpetrators get away with abusing other employees, they gain an arrogance and a feeling of invincibility and they end up taking advantage of more people. Other colleagues may be de-motivated if they are aware of unethical conduct taking place. They end up fearing possible favouritism or being victims as well. If they realise that management is taking a blind eye to sexual harassment, they lose trust in their leadership. Also sexual harassment can cause a reputational and financial loss to the company if it is reported to the company’s suppliers, customers and stakeholders. Sexual harassment is a rot that affects the entire organisation.
MC: Do you think that we have sufficient laws to protect women in the work place and are they deterrent enough to those who might want to abuse their power? Is there a proven track record that those guilty of abuse of power are deservedly punished?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: No. We do not have sufficient laws to protect women in the work place. We do have policies in companies and the provision in the Labour Act that seeks to protect women in the workplace but there is no confidence in how the system operates. The bureaucratic and administrative hindrances actually deter the victims from reporting.
Furthermore in Zimbabwe we do not have much of a proven track record that shows that those who are guilty are deservedly punished. At the moment, prosecution of sexual harassment cases is being dealt with in the general courts. Our view is that there be a specialised department in the labour court to deal with this sensitive matter. The law should also provide for effective victim friendly processes and procedures for reporting and prosecuting sexual harassment cases.
The Constitution of Zimbabwe established the Gender Commission to tackle issues such as these however its mandate, strategy and objectives are not yet clear.
MC: One of the reasons why women fail to report is because they is no guarantee of protection from the perpetrators and security of their jobs afterwards is not guaranteed, how can we change that? (Either through laws or the investigation and hearing process)
We understand that there are amendments being done on the current Labour Act, to what extent is sexual harassment in workplaces being addressed in those amendments.
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: We are engaged in discussions with legislators to discuss how best the problem of sexual harassment can be addressed. We believe exclusive jurisdiction of sexual harassment cases should be given to the Labour Court division staffed with specialised judges trained to handle the sensitive nature of sexual harassment cases.
Furthermore, labour officers, prosecutors, the police and judges need to be trained even more and sensitised towards sexual harassment. Stereotypes and gender prejudices are still prevalent in our judicial process and we still have judicial and bureaucratic obstacles that unnecessarily lengthen the prosecution process. This discourages victims from taking legal action against their abusers.
Secondly, it should be mandatory that every employer must have an anti-sexual harassment policy stipulating how it can be prevented, detected and addressed. There should be a legal force that holds the employer responsible and accountable for ensuring that the workplace is a safe environment where harassment can be reported and punitive measures are in place to deal with perpetrators.
We also have an ongoing debate about whether criminalisation of sexual harassment would be effective. We want comprehensive and punitive measures to be put in place so as to deter abusers.
MC: If anyone is placed in a situation where their superior sexually harasses them, what steps do you recommend that they should take?
ZCTU/ZIBAWU: If one is sexually harassed, they should not keep quiet. Report, report, report! Be it to the HR Department, the police or the workers’ committee. Reporting should be done early. Perpetrators also target individuals who do not know their rights. The reason why this problem goes uncorrected is because people are not speaking out. Let your perpetrator know that you will report them and they will most probably yield. Consult counsellors as well, be it the church or community leaders and they can also guide you as sexual harassment can be a traumatic experience. You can also file a protection order if the perpetrator persists. The emphasis of our awareness campaign is to encourage victims to speak out. That is the only way in which we can overcome this challenge.
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