The worldwide #MeToo movement has revealed that sexual harassment and assault are part of most women’s professional lives. However, this focus that comes from Hollywood should not make us overlook the other forms of violence women suffer in the world of work, especially in Africa.
Sexual assault, insults, humiliation, discrimination, and beyond that contradictory orders or isolation are becoming ‘natural’ aspects of work relationships. Even more so when we realize that many women are afraid to report their attackers, because of not knowing who to turn to or out of fear of losing their jobs. Even worse, some women have got used to it, believing that violence is inevitability, that it ‘is part of their jobs.’ Even though men can also suffer violence and harassment in the workplace, stereotyping and inequality in power relationships make women much more vulnerable to it. Social and gender-based discrimination, which are predominant in society, are reproduced and exacerbated by organisational culture – and tend to drive women or (ethnic, sexual) minorities into subordinate or even violent situations.
And many women never manage to find relief at home, given that domestic violence is also part of their lives. A UN Women report highlights how 35 per cent of women all around the world have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at some point in their lives. In many African countries, the situation is even worse with this percentage climbing to 56 per cent of women in Tanzania and to 71 per cent of women in Ethiopia’s rural areas, according to a World Health Organisation’s study.
This hidden issue ends up having consequences for working women’s physical and psychological well-being, including leading to health problems. Women’s everyday working lives are characterised by anxiety, depression, panic attacks, sleep disorders, attention deficit and memory problems, and feeling vulnerable. This situation can lead to women leaving their jobs or giving up working, which results in interruptions in employment with consequences for current and future income (less right to pensions etc), adding to the already unacceptable gender pay gap of 23 per cent between women and men in the world. Again, inequality is higher in Africa as shown by the World Economic Forum in its latest Global Gender Gap report: in Angola for exemple, women earn less than half than men (40 per cent).
Even though workplace violence affects all sectors and all categories of workers, the health sector – where women make up the majority of workers – is the one that best illustrates the seriousness of the situation. The World Health Organization calculates that violence in this sector makes up a quarter of all assaults that take place in the workplace. In South Africa for example, 61.9 per cent of all health care workers experienced at least one incident of physical or psychological workplace over the past 12 months. When nurses are asked where this violence comes from, they point to patients and visitors on the one hand, and their colleagues and superiors on the other. In fact, work-related violence, and the steady increase thereof, is also due to external factors. It intensifies in situations of economic crisis and war. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, violence against nurses became a weapon of war. A 2012 study found that about 80.1 per cent of health care workers had experienced one or more types of workplace aggressions.
But violence is also a consequence of privatisation and austerity measures, which bring with them more deregulation and increased flexibility that translate into violence towards workers in general.
The International Labour Organisation states that the risk of violence in the workplace is seen to increase due to factors like changes, restructuring of production processes, insufficient staff, excessive workload, non-standard contracts and/or lack of safety.
Similarly, the victims of workplace violence are not only those working in those places. As you can see in hospitals, exhaustion, depression and the absence of sufficient staff ends up affecting the quality of service for patients and their families. In this way, violence in the workplace also adds to higher fear and anxiety levels in society.
The writer is a sociologist and Gender Equality Officer at Public Services International.