The silent monster that is workplace sexual harassment

Saturday October 19 2019


By Janet Otieno-Prosper @JanetOtieno

Agatha*, 27, joined the workforce immediately after graduating from university with a Bachelors degree in business administration five years ago.

She was in the sales department in a Dar es Salaam based firm and indeed she knew her job well judging by sale volumes which the company recorded since she joined. It was until one day her supervisor offered her a lift on their way to a client’s office that the unthinkable happened.

He extended his hand to open the door thereby rubbing his hands on her breasts. She pushed his hands and warned him to stop. When they returned to the office, this colleague got very hostile and set unrealistic targets for her.

He also stopped talking to her and the work environment got even demoralising. She decided to choose her dignity and quit her job since her complains to the manager were not acted upon.

Lydia* 30, had to work overtime as the project she had on her desk had a clear timeline. One evening, a male colleague decided to grab her from behind as she was walking out of the office.

She yelled out of shock but to her astonishment, the other two male colleagues who were also present and witnessed the scene burst into fits of laughter patting the aggressor on the shoulder.


Luckily for her, the HR took action and called the aggressor for a disciplinary meeting, unfortunately the witnesses were the aggressors’ friends so the case fell off by the roadside.

The two cases are not unique but similar incidences of sexual harassment do occur frequently at the workplace.

There is a surge of cases of sexual harassment at some workplaces across Tanzania going by a recent journalistic survey, which was conducted by journalists across the country coordinated by Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA).

Thereafter, TAMWA organised a nationwide media campaign to end sexual harassment in workplaces based on the survey, which found out that many women who are sexually harassed either quit their jobs or remain silent for fear of intimidation and victimisation.

“While some women have come out to report these cases, many others sweep these cases under the carpet, as they fear either losing their jobs or that nobody will take action on the harasser,” TAMWA Executive Director Dr Rose Reuben told journalists during media workshop in August.

And it is not only the women who face sexual harassment, men also suffer in silence going by 2017 Sexual Harassment and Gender Based Violence in Tanzania Public Service Survey that 21 per cent of women and 12 per cent of men face sexual harassment.

Often times, the burden of proof suppress victims of sexual harassment from reporting such cases thus they suffer in silence.

It seems many are not aware of the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, 1998 which has been incorporated in the penal code and criminalises sexual harassment.

Signs to look out for

In layman terms, sexual harassment at work is that unwelcome sexual behaviour, which could be expected to make a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal or written.

It is not behaviour that is mutually agreed upon as it happens at work, work-related events or where people are carrying out work-related functions or between people sharing the same workplace.

The following are termed as the kind of behaviours amounting to sexual harassment: causing sexual annoyance to a person, uttering any word, making any sound or gesture, or exhibiting any object, including any organ whether male or female intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that the gesture shall be seen by a woman.

Catherine MacKinnon, an American radical feminist and author of Sexual Harassment of Working Women stated that, “women tend to be in low-ranking positions, dependent upon the approval and goodwill of male superiors for hiring, retention and advancement. “Being at the mercy of male superiors adds direct economic clout to male sexual demands and deprives women of material security and independence which could help make resistance to unreasonable pressures.”

What many women do not know is that a single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.

And interestingly some do not understand what harassment looks like or fear to report for various reasons.

Rebeca Gyumi, an activist and the Founder of Msichana Initiative, a local NGO which aims to empower a girl child through education explains that, “Many times some of the women do not even know how violence or harassment takes place. This is why we are ensuring that the girls have the necessary capacity to understand how harassment/violence looks like.”

She highlighted that at Msichana Initiative, they ensure that girls are connected to various mechanisms in their communities to report any form of harassment/violence.

“We need to change the stereotypes/customs and traditions which have socialised us to condemn one reporting violence. Blaming the victim makes people fear reporting. In fact what we see in the society is the manifestation of the root causes of gender based violence.”

“Girls need to be encouraged to showcase their power and change their vulnerability to leadership. This would ensure that they speak up. We are training girls in violence prone areas to be at the forefront on speaking up against violence,” she concluded.

Mary Richard, the head of program at Tanzania Women Lawyers Association (TAWLA) points out that though there is a problem of sexual harassment at workplaces, there is no credible data to capture the magnitude due to the nature of the issue – women are afraid to report out of fear that they will lose their jobs.

“These women are at a disadvantaged position as they fear that they can be dismissed or perhaps they have seen other women reporting such cases but no action is taken thus discouraging them from following the same path where there is no redress or proper reporting channels and it backfires so they end up complying,” she elaborated.

“Another reason why women do not report is lack of awareness that the law protects them.”

She has a word of advise for employers,“ All employers must ensure that there are proper mechanisms in place for women to report such cases for redress.

Dr Rose Reuben is of the view that raising awareness about the issue will go along way in tackling the issue which has become a silent monster in work places.

“In African society, the way we are socialized makes this issue of sexual harassment a norm - like touching a woman without her consent has become the norm; this is not right.”

“Children get sexually molested, indecently touched and the community is silent about this. This is why awareness should be there so that children learn to speak out,’ she stated.

“The extent of sexual harassment in our nation can only be documented if people speak out. Victimization of people who speak out is brought by the effect of norm in African culture where sexual issues are meant for married people not public. This is why even gender based violence meetings to mediate between couples are usually held in private.

They are muted conversations, we should discuss sexual assault without shame to get data and ways to end it,” she recounted.

Carl Bosser Consulting Director Emaron Group, an international company, which offers Human Resources and Business Improvement advisory services, is of the view that for a victim of workplace sexual harassment to come out, there is the need for openness and Human Resource office should give support and protection to the victims.

“Some organisations are careful about the issue and they have a diversity management policy as a list of the best practice. Companies need to be transparent from the process of hiring to orientation and be more open to tackle sexual harassment at workplace. The issue should not be taken casually because this will make perpetrators think that it is okay,” he stated.

He adds that employers can start discussion around this issue and perhaps bring in a neutral counselor since this is a very sensitive issue that employees can talk to and then give their feedback to the management for action thereby encouraging the victims to come out.

“Look at the home background where boys touch girls inappropriately while adults watch without correcting this behaviour. And at school it gets even worse as they see even workers doing it making sexual harassment look like an acceptable behaviour pattern.”

He opines that many victims of sexual harassment are not coming out because there is no enough protection and there is no openness the way people talk about it. He calls on employers to maintain a clear comprehensive anti-harassment policy and start discussion on this topic by having forums at workplaces to discuss this to encourage openness.

And at a bigger scale, he says awareness campaigns need to target public places like churches among other areas to carefully address this issue and bring about culture change.

This is because sexual harassment at work does not only have direct negative implications on the victims which include productivity, well-being and job satisfaction but also on the employer.