Why sexual harassment victims suffer in silence

Saturday June 20 2020


By Gabriel Buule

The beginning of this year was characterised by rape claims as a number of women opened up via social media that they had been either drugged or sexually harassed by men.

If you have been following events on social media, you should be able to remember the hashstag #MeTooUg that trended for weeks, where many women shared painful stories of how they were raped.

This caused a social media uproar with heated debates and mixed reactions. A section of the public turned against rape victims calling it a ploy aimed at mudslinging and blackmail men.

Brenda Nabatanzi (not real names) was sexually harassed by her stepfather. The 18-year-old reported to her mother and she was accused of indiscipline and seducing her stepfather. Infact she was warned against ever making such utterances.

She was repeatedly raped by the same person and this time round, she became pregnant. She chose to tell her close friend about what had happened and the friend reported the matter to police.

Police asked Nabatanzi to undergo tests by a physician as a procedure to process her statement. The next day, she declined to proceed with the case after she had been told by her other friend that no one would believe her. She decided to abort and flee from her home after her family members started turning against her.
“I felt I had betrayed myself and other victims who experience rape. I chose to protect the relationship between me and my mother,” she explains


Similarly, a 33-year-old Joan (seeks anonymity) was dragged by a top city socialite and sexually harassed for nearly a week in February 2019. Joan says she reported to police but she was instead accused of conniving with other people to steal money.

Although Joan talked to people she trusted, several questions were thrown at her. How did you get to know him? How did you end up in his house? Are you the first one to be raped? Must you go around announcing how you were raped?

She says she was frustrated and the rapist threatened to kill her in case she continued pursuing the case in courts of law.
Whenever women report sex related crimes, they are usually judged, accused of being prostitutes, liars and perhaps attention seekers.

Understanding sexual harassment
Human rights lawyer, Isaac Ssemakadde explains that it makes it a complicated matter in the face of the public considering that people don’t even understand what sexual harassment entails.

Ssemakadde says sexual harassment is a crime related to abuse or misuse of one’s power or privilege in relation to another person. He notes that it is much reported in schools, civilian and military workplaces, places of worship, homes and other social settings.

“Sexual harassment maybe seen in form of unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances or requests for sexual favours and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly,” Semakadde explains.

He clarifies that sexual harassment is a offence punishable by law and he warns that absence of violence or physical force is never a defense to a complaint of sexual harassment.

“It is a sexual crime that involves any form of sexual contact without consent of a victim be it female or male. This may be rape, violent sexual act or unwanted sexual touches,” he explains.

Why victims remain silent
Milly Nnassolo Kikomeko, the Women rights activist, researcher and the proprietor of Maisha Holistic Africa, explains the battle against rape is a long journey to justice considering that society silences the victims against their oppressors.

“In Uganda, just like many parts in Africa, sexual harassment is not considered as a crime. Society has a way of scolding sexually harassed victims. As the public continues to judge and reprimand victims, new victims fear to open up,” she explains.

Primah Kwagala rechoes Kikomeko’s claims, adding that victims are silenced by society and are never given a chance to tell their stories.
She says at a time where social media is considered to be the public court, victims feel judged before taking any legal proceeding, something that frustrates more women to speak out.

“People assume it is an offence and shameful to be sexually harassed. Some victims tend to have no evidence at a time they choose to report these cases to police. Those without physical damages find it hard to report and this arises from the fact that at a time of a crime, a victim chooses say to bath, wash and this compromises critical evidence,” she notes

Ssemakadde explains that there is a wide range of factors within the ethnic, religious, ideological, political and cultural diversity of Ugandans that have historically pulled away the would-be reporters of sexual offences and discouraged them from seeking justice in a formal setting, especially the ones involving police, court, lawyers and the prison system.

“Many sex-related crimes are still diverted to the traditional justice systems that exist within ethnic, religious and cultural settings. These are more readily accessible, humane, speedy and corruption-free forums of dispute resolution compared to the court system,” he says.

Ssemakadde, however, says the war against sexual harassment is failed by activists who he terms as perennial reformers with vested interests.
“Whenever women are raped, instead of hiring the professional lawyers, they settle for whoever they get and in end, they lose cases. Sexual harassment is a critical crime which must handled by the right crime lawyers,” he adds
He says some unscrupulous people use victims to make reports and secure funding from unsuspecting donors.

The Law: Can a person report sexual harassment after a year or months?
Many sexual harassment cases were committed years or months ago. The public through social media have always asked why victims take long to report rape cases.
Ssemakadde notes that a person can report even after a decade, or a century and it entirely depends on their intention or reasons for reporting now and not then. He is, however, quick to mention that equity aids the vigilant, not those who willfully or recklessly slumber on their rights.

“If the aim is to name and shame, one can wait until the aggressor becomes influential, for instance, a presidential candidate, nominee for high public office, sports icon or media personality” he adds
However, the longer it takes from the date of the alleged incident, the harder it gets to prove the aggression, as one may lose evidence, witnesses, and a fair chance to defend himself or herself.

“That’s why the law, as it stands, compels survivors to report incidents of sexual harassment immediately, not beyond six (6) years as stipulated in Section 3 of the Limitation Act ( filing a civil case in court),” he explains.

He however, says sexual harassment at workplaces is not yet a criminal offence under Ugandan laws since you cannot go to jail or be fined for it.
“You can only lose your job, reputation, status if found guilty of sexual harassment. You can also be required to compensate the victim in a civil suit,” he adds.

Social media court
Ssemakadde believes movements, such as #MeToo and modern feminism, is a pressing concern for the millennials.
“The #MeToo movement encourages people to use social media tactics to publicise their allegations of sex crimes committed by prominent or powerful men, without any intention of seeking justice in a formal setting,” Ssemakadde notes

Tarana Burke, the founder of #MeToo, says the platform seeks to empower young and vulnerable women through solidarity, by sharing stories of women who were sexually harrassed, especially in the workplace.
She says the proprietors could make time for primetime TV and radio appearances, magazine features, tweet chats, Instagram Live, Facebook Live, fashion shows, and other events to champions girl safety, but not a single moment for a police interview.

He, however, says it’s another avenue for victims to speak up. “If you have a smartphone and can afford data, why would you go through the drudgery of reporting a sexual offence to police, dealing with lawyers, assembling evidence, searching for credible witnesses, travelling to court for cross-examination, and waiting endlessly for a verdict that may potentially take ages?” he wonders.

Action taken by police
The 2019 police crime report shows that sexual harassment is fused within rape, indecent assault and unnatural offences. Such cases comprises of 7.2 per cent of all sex-related crimes. A total of 15,638 cases were recorded in 2019 report compared to 17,099 cases reported in 2018.

It is important to note that many victims do not report sex related offences to police. Even those that attempt to report, cases take forever to be prosecuted. There is need to hold police and the judicial system accountable in order to support victims to bring perpetrators to book.

Would you speak out ?
Sandra Leticia, a businesswoman saya: “Why would I speak out yet many women are frustrated by the public and the police? I would find other means of getting over it.”
“What hurts is the fact that authorities sometimes don’t help that much. I can name and shame the oppressor and let it go,” says Vanitah Nabbanja, nursing student.
“Why should I subject myself to mental torture in search for justice I won’t get?” says Brenda Bizu - an artiste.