As is often the case, it has taken Hollywood to get the whole world talking about sexual harassment again.
Harvey Weinstein is the latest in a string of badly behaved leaders in their fields to be exposed as a sexual predator lording his power to make or break careers to get his way with the often incredibly beautiful but more importantly vulnerable actresses and models.
Mr. Weinstein, however, is not an outlier. In the last twelve months alone, Silicon Valley has come under fire for its misogynistic practices and who can forget the so-called Leader of the Free World’s locker room talk debacle.
We could easily dismiss this as a Western phenomenon since our local media is not awash with women coming out to share their experiences though as is wont to happen these days, social media tells a different story.
A couple weeks ago, Hollywood actress, Alyssa Milano tweeted, “Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” she wrote.
And, with this simple suggestion, social media platforms were flooded with women simply posting, “Me too” and some going on to share their experiences. Interestingly enough, I first heard about this campaign, when I saw Rwandan women posting, “Me Too”, on their Facebook pages.
This I found fascinating, it is one thing to read about the foibles of ill-mannered media moguls and politicians in the US, theirs is a culture that encourages sharing one’s personal truth with the entire world.
Our culture is different, we tend to value dignity above all else and it is not considered dignified in the least to freely share the details of one’s darkest moments with whoever is willing to listen.
When one considers that on speaking up, society may lay the blame squarely at the feet of the victim, accusing her of dressing too suggestively, or walking too provocatively, or simply being in too close proximity of their harasser, or generally suggesting that the victim was complicit in her plight, it is understandable that the victims will keep their stories to themselves.
So, to see Rwandan women, successful women in their various careers, publicly post, “Me too”, gave me pause. How prevalent is sexual harassment in our workplaces, on the streets or even in our homes?
A quick search on sexual harassment in Rwanda reveals articles published in The New Times that mainly highlight the plight of women in the service industry.
I believe this may be the tip of the iceberg, the ladies in the service industry unfortunately often have to deal with the worst possible version of humanity, people who have been stripped of common inhibitions by the excessive consumption of alcohol and feelings of entitlement have taken the place of common sense.
People whose sense of shame has taken a leave of absence allowing them the freedom to behave badly in public for the whole world to see. On the bright side, this is a problem that has been identified and I believe a mechanism has been or is being put in place to protect that ladies working hard to create a vibrant and professional service industry.
Sexual harassment is not, however, a problem exclusive to the service industry, it is a scourge on all sectors of our economy.
Talk to human resource personnel of any organization, and they will tell you that there is an anti-harassment policy in place, ask them how many cases have been reported to date, and they will most likely say few to none.
The truth of the matter is that policies and guidelines are only useful if the likely victims feel free to use the protections afforded by the policy without fear of repercussions. Policies and guidelines have to be accompanied by organizational leaders cultivating an environment that treats sexual harassment as a serious offence, not an inconvenience to be swept under the rug.
Ladies and gentlemen, do not conduct yourself inappropriately or misuse your power. Two, impunity - if you hear about an incident of harassment, may your instinct not be to victim shame but to investigate further.
And, three, silence – victims speaking out should not jeopardize their jobs or affect career advancement. Who knows, these simple actions may mean the world to someone.
The views expressed in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.