How to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace

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Sexual harassment in the workplace poses a threat to productivity. (Net photos)

As a fresh graduate with no work experience, 26-year-old Naira Mutesi found herself between a rock and a hard place. She vividly recalls the torment she endured when she was hired at a private company a few years back.

Being the only female in her department, many of her colleagues made unwanted sexual passes at her.

“It wasn’t easy for me when I had just started. Some of my colleagues made rude remarks about my body and sometimes, there was even unwanted physical contact,” she says.

Like Mutesi, many women have over the years had to silently put up with sexual harassment in the work place.

STATISTICS ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT 

According to UN Women website, between 15 and 76 per cent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.

In Nairobi, 20 per cent of women have been sexually harassed at work or school.

Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.

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Women face the worst part of sexual harassment in work places. 

Understanding sexual harassment

Craish Kagwisagye, a Kigali-based lawyer, explains that sexual harassment is a form of work environment segregation based on one’s sex and can either be physical, visual or verbal.

He explains that any act of advance, bullying or favour of a sexual nature qualifies as sexual harassment.

He also adds that a sexist comment on the other hand can also be a form of sexual harassment because it is also a verbal prejudice of sexual nature.

Sending suggestive notes or e-mails, making inappropriate sexual gestures, making sexual comments about one’s appearance or even improper touching can all be forms of sexual harassment.

He says that though men too can be victims, women tend to face the biggest challenge when it comes to sexual harassment.

“Women face the worst part of sexual harassment in work places which is physical harassment. However, men too can be harassed. Men can also face written, visual and verbal advances of a sexual nature,” he notes.

Sexual harassment is a crime under the Rwandan laws and any person found guilty can be liable to a term of imprisonment of six months to two years and a fine of Rwf100, 000 to Rwf200, 000, Kagwisagye explains.

Hospitality sector most affected

According to the 2015/2016 annual report from the Gender Monitoring Office, in its gender audit in the hospitality industry; as far as compliance with recruitment procedures is concerned, findings indicated that depending on the business size or level, businesses recruit through exams or only through references or head-hunting.

As far as contracts, social security benefits and maternity leave benefits are concerned, several men and women employed in the sector, especially in bars and lodges, said that they have no formal contract and are not entitled to social security benefits from their employers, the report showed.

These are some of the aspects that could provide room for sexual harassment to prevail.

The respondents revealed challenges encountered in the service delivery and advocacy points and these included; a negative connotation that women working in the hospitality industry are most likely considered sex objects. Due to this, some clients harass them, sometimes in public.

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Sexual harassment is traumatising and difficult to handle.

Are employers aware of this?

Jean Bosco Rwerinyange, the human resource manager at Cogebanque, says that although they have never had any reported case, they still have a code of conduct based on the labour law.

“We not only have the law against sexual harassment, we in fact encourage every employee to have our code of conduct with them, so that they get to know each and every law that protects them. They also refer to it in everything they do at work,” Rwerinyange says.

He adds that sexual harassment would not be tolerated irrespective of one’s rank in the bank.

Charity Umunyana, the System Review Officer and investigator at the Office of the Ombudsman, says that they deal with sexual based corruption.

She explains that sexual based corruption is when a female or male employee is requested to offer sexual favours in order for them to get a job or a promotion at work or be offered a conducive working environment.

Umunyana points out that though the cases they receive are not so many, the vice still prevails in work places only that victims tend to keep silent. Those who report come when it’s too late to follow up the cases because it’s hard to get evidence that implicates the suspect.

The other challenge is that in some cases, both parties tend to be on the same page at first only for things to change later when the victim’s expectations are not met.

This is when they decide to report, but this way, implicating the suspect can be hard without hard evidence, Umunyana says. 

“We have some cases where people come to report like after five years but at this time, it is too late to make any follow up,” she says.

Umunyana also says that such poses a challenge because some people don’t report the cases at all and this is caused by the nature of society where people fear to open up on such matters.

 “However, if we are to fight this behaviour, we need to work hand in hand and the victims should report the cases early,” she says.

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Women face the worst part of sexual harassment in work places. 

Is sexual harassment exaggerated?

Haira Nakitende says that whether it is done intentionally or not, the vice brings about the same discomfort, disrespect and all the effects that come with such a terrible tendency.

“Some male co-workers tend to be so flirty, for instance, they tend to touch women inappropriately, but they should understand that it’s offensive. Men should at least try to rate the kind of closeness they have with that particular person before they say or do anything that is too personal,” Nakitende says.

Hilary Muramira says people are sexually harassed most especially as they look for opportunities because not all people behave professionally.

Muramira, however, advises that everyone should be responsible for their own life, for instance girls shouldn’t put themselves in such positions, for example, going to dangerous or suspicious places alone.

“I can’t say I understand what it feels like for men to be sexually assaulted but for a woman, I think it’s traumatising and difficult to handle. Some women even get discouraged and fail to look for jobs because they think they will be asked for sex before they get hired.”

He notes that though such cases still prevail, they are not ignored and that a lot is being done to fight it.

 “For Rwanda, I think there are several measures in place by the bodies responsible. I think men don’t face a lot of sexual harassment, maybe in cases where they are wrongly accused of such cases,” he says.

William Rwiririza, an economist, shares a similar view, saying that sexual harassment should be stumped out.

The economist believes that sexual harassment has been ignored in some institutions like universities where some lecturers are accused of harassing female students.

He also says that just like women, men too face sexual harassment though to a small extent.

How can the victims cope?

Joyce Kirabo, a Kigali-based counsellor says that the number one weapon females should use is to know the law that protects them so that they use it as a shield.

 “They should bear in mind that they are not supposed to be undermined and used. And they should also know that any promotion they got in exchange for sex makes their efforts go unnoticed so they should not fall for that. Instead, they should report and work together to fight against the harassment because they have laws to protect them,” Kirabo says.

She also advises those who are already victims that it’s not too late and that they should stand up and fight for their rights.

“They should know that they can gather all the evidence and report the case to the people in charge,” Kirabo says.

How can sexual harassment in the work place be curbed?   

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Norah Mutesi

I think women should be aware of their rights and stand up for them instead of letting their bosses or co-workers take advantage of them. They should also not play the victim but instead, show fellow workmates that they know why they are there and that they won’t be taken advantage of.

Norah Mutesi, University graduate

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Didace Niyibizi

Women should say no to men who make sexual advances at them. They shouldn’t give them the chance but rather, keep it strictly professional.  This way they will be safe from such incidences. 

Didace Niyibizi, Journalist

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Murekatete

Employers should put laws in place that will protect women against sexual harassment. The staff should be aware of these laws and I think this way, cases of sexual harassment will be prevented.

Revocat MurekateteCommunity health worker

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Olivier Bizimana

Women should focus when at work because this will limit the chances of being harassed. When a woman is serious and focused on her job, guys will fear to approach her. In case this doesn’t work, the disciplinary department in the workplace can intervene. Women should do their best to dress decently and also conduct themselves in a respectful way.

Olivier Bizimana, Medical student

editorial@newtimes.co.rw