Tackling workplace sexual harassment is far easier for organisations than some ad campaigns

Anna’s* career path has been dotted with job switches since she finished NYSC in 2018, for reasons completely unrelated to her competence.  Her first job as an accountant for a small firm in Kaduna ended abruptly after 4 months and backbreaking labour to clean up years of shoddy record-keeping and set the firm on course to financial success again. The reason she was fired remains unclear to her colleagues to this day.

“My direct supervisor, the finance department head, was also the son of the founder, but that never moved because I got this vibe of impeccable professionalism when I interviewed. I figured this family must be one of those rare families that actually do a stellar job of managing the family business. I was wrong.”

“My first few weeks were fine, because I joined halfway through the month and there was so much bookkeeping to do and even more to fix. Then month’s end came and my direct supervisor who had been nothing but helpful with everything I said I needed jovially invited me out for a drink saying I have done a lot of work in 2 weeks, I deserve a treat. I declined.”

As they tend to be in work settings, offers like that aren’t usually what they seem.

“I remember just saying I was too tired and just need to go home and he was pliant. He almost fooled me.”

A week later she declined again. Then again.

“I knew something was off when I came in one day and I couldn’t find the ledger at my desk where I left it the night prior and when I asked my other colleague said, “Oga took it to his office,” which is unusual, but I went there to get it. And that was when the ball dropped.”

Her boss didn’t just want a drink with a colleague, he informed her, he wanted to go out with her.

“He told me he wanted to make a wife of me, but that wasn’t what I went to work for.”

She made that very clear but something had broken from his end of their work relationship and it was a downward spiral of awkwardness and discomfort. Two months later, she received her letter of termination of employment on the grounds of incompetence. The immaculate books she left behind in the firm however disagree with that assessment, but who is asking?

She would lose two more jobs due to workplace sexual harassment before COVID-19 hit just as she got another job.

“This current job is a blessing I don’t take for granted,” she said, “I still cringe though when I remember the interview. The way the HR grilled me to find out how come I have a history of holding down jobs for 3-4 months. I said something about them not being a great fit but she persisted, so I told her about the incidents of harassment.”

She got the job, went into remote work due to COVID, and has since excelled at it.

“The remote work helped with my anxiety from all the harassment, but the assurance that I had HR in my corner even after the lockdown and we partially returned to the office did more to make me feel safer.”

There is enduring truth in the words of Nigerian poet, Ijeoma Umebinyuo, when she wrote, “Daughters do not have to inherit the silence of their mothers,” evidence shows that they did not.

The evidence is in the way we more openly talk about sexual and gender-based violence. It is in how women and their allies in the fight for gender equality continue to valiantly fight for equal opportunity – the path to achieving which is littered with hindrances. The same that also makes holding a job or advancing in one harder for women. Hindrances like workplace sexual harassment.

Taking into account the varying ways sexual harassment can manifest as we have written here, estimates suggest that as many as 75% of women over 18 – at least two billion women – have experienced sexual harassment globally.

In addition, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that 35 percent of women, or approximately 930 million women, have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

There is a menace of sexual violence in every nook and cranny of our shared existence. Each is easily tackled with deterrent laws and a culture that doesn’t let sexual violence slide. It is easier still to tackle sexual harassment that happens in the workplace.

Private organisations are at liberty to create in-house policies on sexual harassment in line with the nation’s labour laws. However, when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, Nigerian organisations need to go one step ahead of the nation’s labour laws which as we have shown here remain deficient.

Every organisation’s policies must contain clear sanctions that involve at least job loss and if the victim wants to press charges, the full support of the organisation to pursue justice for:

• Attempted or actual sexual assault, including rape.

• Sharing or displaying sexually inappropriate images or videos in any format.

• Sending sexually suggestive communications in any format.

• Sharing sexual or lewd anecdotes or jokes.

• Making inappropriate sexual gestures, such as pelvic thrusts.

• Unwelcome touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person.

• Staring in a sexually suggestive manner.

• Repeatedly asking a person for dates or asking for sex.

• Rating a person’s sexuality.

• Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing or body parts.

• Name-calling or using slurs with a gender/sexual connotation.

• Making derogatory or demeaning comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender expression.

If it helps, we may need to begin considering air-tight inclusive policies as community social responsibility and rating organisations based on how well they do on that metric. Anything short of excellence is sabotaging the physical, emotional, and economic well-being of over half the population, and should be considered more than negligence, criminal.

*Name is changed to maintain anonymity.

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