Sexual harassment: A chronic vice 

What you need to know:

  • On Wednesday, we commemorated World Women’s Day in an effort to strengthen gender equality and break the glass ceiling that prevents women from achieving their dreams. Daily Monitor’s Tonny Musani navigated the dark world of bosses’ or associates luring women into sex for career opportunities or favours, a vice that has been happening since time immemorial, but society often turns a blind eye.

The phenomenon of sexualisation in the workplace has gained momentum in the 21st Century, with many women cornered to normalise the vice. Although it is silently orchestrated, the majority of women are shouldering the burden and quietly living with trauma.
However, some bold faces have opened up to close friends or colleagues and family members about how bosses or colleagues have been asking for sex in exchange for job opportunities,promotions, salary increments and favours. This has been a defining moment for many, with some heroines standing their ground and missing big opportunities in life.
Last month, an investigative story by BBC Eye Africa, revealed shocking incidents of how widespread the issue of sexual harassment is, and is highly rampant in the blue-collar jobs sector.

The investigations uncovered how hundreds of desperate women had to sleep with their male supervisors, before they were employed in tea farms in Kericho, Kenya, while those who declined the offers were posted in the tough areas of the farm. 
Sadly many women contracted the HIV/Aids from their oppressors. Kenya’s Parliament immediately ordered an inquiry into the allegations.
The vice, which requires a thick skin to fight, is now rampant in both formal employment and the informal sector.
Mercy*, who was hunting an aviation job in 2018, ended up facing the wrath of a sex monger, allegedly at Internal Affairs offices. She says he was highly connected and she needed a recommendation later from him, before she could proceed to Entebbe.
“My cousin who works in Entebbe said in the company she works with, one must have a recommendation from some specific people. We can give you the numbers and you try your luck,’’ she said.

Mercy says she made an appointment with one of the top officials and on an agreed date, she went to his office. She says the officer played a cat-and-mouse game on her for two days as she kept visiting his office to see him.  
“On the day I saw him, there were around eight people waiting to see him at his office. So, when he opened his door, he just asked for me [calling out my name] and closed his door. Once we were in, he requested me to remove his coat. I was scared but I did it,’’ she adds.
Mercy says the officer, who is of her tribe, told her how she is beautiful and asked for sex before he would recommend her. She says the officer, who was aged between 45 and 50 years, is very prominent in their sub-region.
“He came close to me and started touching me. I told him to leave my body. He chased me like a dog saying ‘never bring those legs here again’. I got so ashamed and was disturbed for a month,’’ she says.

The person who connected her to the officer, later told her that she should have played hide-and-seek with him [officer] until she gets the job.
In 2020, Mercy got a job with Airtel Uganda through her husband’s friend.
“My husband’s friend did not disturb me like in the case of 2018. Women go through a lot of challenges to secure jobs. Many of my friends have similar stories, but we must respect our bodies,’’ she says.
For Nelly*, the story is not any different. The practicing nurse, who is a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace, says the vice is eroding professionalism in the medical field. Nelly stood firm on her position and turned down an offer by his would-be employer.
As a third year student of Health Professional College, in Kampala, Nelly thought of hunting for a job to support her mother in paying tuition. But she regrets the nasty experience she went through.

“A friend connected me to a job in Gomba District in 2019. I spent the entire afternoon and evening seeing him treat patients. At 7:30pm, he closed the clinic and told me to wait for him as he went to do grocery shopping. He later returned with alcohol and he started enticing me to drink, saying medics enjoy life. I objected, but he held me and started caressing me,’’ she says.
Nelly says she pleaded with the man and went down on her knees. After a scuffle for close to 20 minutes, she was allowed to sleep in one of the patient’s admission rooms.
“I warned him that I was going to make an alarm if he did not leave me, but he kept holding me from behind. But since he was already tipsy, I pushed him. He calmed down and allowed me to sleep in one of the rooms. I was able to close the door, but I never slept the whole night,’’ she adds.

The next morning, she was ordered out of the clinic and warned never to talk about anything. “I decided to keep it to myself. I was traumatised. After a while, I opened up to my friends about it and they thanked me for declining the job. It was the best therapy I got,’’ she says.
Nelly, who is now employed in one of the clinics at Bweyogere suburb in Wakiso District, says she got her current job on merit. 
“Do not give in to bosses because of jobs. I feel proud, God blessed me with a new job with no strings attached,’’ she says.
A May 2021 research conducted by the Human Resources for Health, revealed that men of higher status positions, abuse power to coerce sex from female employees throughout the employment section. The findings pinned Uganda’s public health workplaces as a strong base for sex-based harassment.

Laura*, who has been in the newsroom for close to five years in one of the Dailies in Kampala city, says sexual harassment is prevalent.
“Male journalists have normalised touching women even against their will. You become a darling to many, if you easily give in to their sexual demands. I have stood my ground many times and kept it professional at workplace,” she says.
But she notes that it is a mountain to climb for many women journalists.
“My hope is that those who have risen in higher positions stick around, but it is sad that some women are quitting the profession,” she said.
A new report released by Women in News titled Sexual Harassment in the Media in Africa, released in February this year,  shows women working in the newsroom have become victims of a vice they themselves report and write about.
According to the study, one in every two women, about 47 percent, has faced either verbal or physical sexual harassment at their workplace. 

About 56 percent of the women working in the media, have experienced verbal harassment, while 36 have experienced physical harassment compared to their male counterparts where only 25 percent and 15 percent faced verbal and physical harassment respectively. Approximately 41 percent of the perpetrators were supervisors and executives, while 38 percent and 17 percent were colleagues and sources.
As cases of harassment keep rising, only 21 percent are reported to management, while the majority go unreported due to fear of losing their jobs, or retaliation by the perpetrator, organisational barriers, lack of evidence, indifferences and being silenced.
The study further shows that 37 percent of the respondents said their news station did not have sexual harassment policies, yet it is a guideline that has been championed for ending sexual violence. However, 43 percent say the policy existed, but was not operational, while 19 percent said they were not aware if such a policy existed in their newsrooms.
Grace Mukwaya Lule, the executive director of Platform for Labour Action, a non-profit organisation, says there is need to create awareness of what really sexual harassment is and how it affects workers.

“As we commemorate Women’s Day, let us embrace equality, and build a society where women are respected like men. No woman should be harassed because of a job,’’ she said.
She calls upon women to report cases of sexual harassment and not to turn a blind eye. “Let us report with all evidence available,” she adds.
Patience Poni Ayikoru, a lawyer and social justice founder of Femme Talk WestNile, says many people know that sexual harassment is a crime and an offense punishable by law, but they still continuously commit it.
“Nobody deserves to be sexually harassed. It is time to make such policies mandatory in all institutions to protect female and male workers,’’ she opines.
In order to reduce trauma and support survivors of sexual harassment overcome fear, Ayikoru calls for collective work as individuals, state and non-state actors, civil society to provide conducive environments for reporting the cases.
“We need to offer psychosocial support to them. They need to seek help openly and access justice. Key stakeholders further say, there is a need for seriousness in dealing with sexual harassment cases reported to management and punishment should include but not be limited to, suspension and dismissal,’’ she adds.

Safe spaces 
In the wake of the fourth Industrial Revolution, it is critical that we make all spaces safe and accommodative, advance gender responsive approaches and policies that include women in all their diversity. Women need to be exposed to more digital spaces.
Ayikoru further advises job seekers to know that there are laws that govern the employment sector. “Get jobs on merit for your skills and competence. Do not stoop too low towards power imbalances in the name of getting a job. Understand the various forms of harassment in the workplace, identify them and take action to speak up against the harassment. Hold employers accountable for your safety,’’ she says.

Psychological suffering includes humiliation, reduced motivation, and loss of self-esteem.
Behavioural change including isolation, and deterioration of relationships.
Stress-related physical and mental illness including drug and alcohol abuse.
Victims forego career opportunities, leave employment, or commit suicide.
Decreased enterprise productivity due to impaired judgment, compromised teamwork, de-motivation, and absenteeism.

*The names of the women interviewed for this story have been altered to protect their identities.