Rachel Ombaka is a passionate campaigner against sexual harassment, especially in the media sector. Having been on the receiving end of a sexual overture that left her feeling violated, she confronted her perpetrator, despite being the ‘new girl’, and reported him to HR. But her experience left her itching to do more to help her colleagues. So when she signed up for the Women in News Leadership Accelerator training in 2018, she gained the insight and tools she needed to speak up, and stand loud and proud against sexual harassment. She shares her story.
1. You have become a vocal campaigner against sexual harassment in newsrooms, speaking in panels, participating in WIN’s ‘I will not be silent’ campaign and taking the lead in protecting your fellow women journalists. What brought you to this point?
I had just started a new job after having my baby and while at a newsroom meeting, I saw a WhatsApp message on my phone. It was from one of the bosses who was also present so I read it to see what he had sent. I assumed that he probably wanted me to pitch a story. But to my shock, the text was describing my legs (I was in a dress), and he said ‘my legs were killing him’.
I was utterly disgusted and incensed. I felt violated and couldn’t concentrate at the meeting. I decided to confront him after the meeting. He was shocked because he didn’t expect the new girl to tell him off. He apologised, but I still felt aggrieved so I reported him to the Human Resources director. She, too, was appalled and advised me to take a screenshot of the message and email it to myself as a record. She said they would monitor him from then on. Fortunately for me, he did not attempt to approach me in that manner again.
However, I started seeing people doing the same to interns and other junior colleagues in the newsroom: sending lewd texts, hugging them inappropriately, bullying them into going to lunch with them, making sexist jokes, and so on. I felt a strong need to do something because I had also gone through a somewhat similar experience.
I didn’t know what to do until I signed up for the WIN Leadership Accelerator programme and sexual harassment was one of the training modules. I had not been trained on the subject before and didn’t know that this violation had a label, and that there were strategies to deal with it at every level, both internally and externally.
During the nine-month training programme, we were assigned tasks to carry out in the newsroom, such as putting up posters to increase awareness on sexual harassment, speaking with the HR department find out if a policy was in existence, and making colleagues aware of what sexual harassment looks like and what they can do about it. I found my voice through WIN and from then on, I have been called to speak on panels, including those organised by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK), Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) and African Women in Media (AWiM).
Through these partnerships I have been able to share my experience, learn from the experiences of others and most recently, be part of the formation of the Kenya Media Sector Working Group to chart the way forward in dealing with sexual harassment in the industry.
2. What are you proudest of in your stand to break the cycle of silence on sexual harassment?
When I spoke up, other women found their voice too. For the longest time, it had seemed like sexual harassment was part of newsroom culture and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It had been normalised. But when I began speaking to the perpetrators when they violated their colleagues and even spoke to one of the company directors and he addressed it at a meeting, people began to take it seriously.
There is still so much work to be done, but the fact that people now know that it is no longer business as usual is a big win for me. Change, no matter how small, is always the beginning of new, better things to come. I am glad to have sparked change no matter how small.
3. What has been your biggest challenge walking this path?
Sexual harassment is about power and the patriarchy provides an enabling environment for this behaviour to thrive. Most Kenyan newsrooms are male dominated, so you find that when it is a woman speaking up against this vice, they see the women (with her ‘soft’ voice for example) and don’t hear the message. Society is conditioned to listen more to men than to women. So when it comes to an office setting, the same culture exists.
When I first spoke up about sexual harassment and shared with my colleagues how it made women feel uncomfortable, no one took it seriously. I was even more frustrated when after talking to the HR and getting approval to put up the WIN poster that outlines types of sexual harassment, I came to the office one morning and found that it had been removed. I believe it was because I was a woman trying to change what was perceived to be the ‘norm’ and I was making people uncomfortable.
I spoke to my WIN coach about it and she asked me to get male allies in the newsroom (particularly someone in a position of authority) – to essentially get my message across but through a voice that society (in this case the newsroom) would listen to. When I did that through one of the directors, the tide changed. This director even took the initiative to speak to one of the people who had aggrieved a female colleague and he stopped sexually harassing her after that.
There has also been debate on how one can label an approach as sexual harassment yet it could be a ‘genuine romantic pursuit’. I also kept being asked why women take ‘small things’ so seriously and how men are supposed to get wives if we start ‘restraining’ them.
Getting perpetrators to understand that sexual harassment is based on how the person on the receiving end feels about the behaviour remains a big challenge, but we have to continue speaking about it to help people understand that one cannot be comfortable or thrive in the workplace if they constantly feel violated.
4. What do you wish more people understood about sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is misunderstood as a fight between men and women, yet it is very personal and is centred on wielding power over those seen to be on a lower level. Violating someone takes all forms: lewd messages on texts or social media, catcalling, sexist jokes, inappropriate touching/hugging, comments about intimate parts of the body, the list is endless. It has led to people leaving their jobs or writing off the media industry as a whole, poor performance in the workplace, mental anguish, lowered self-esteem and the media industry’s image gets tainted.
With corporates now analysing sexual harassment and gender equity, we will start seeing advertisers pulling out or declining to be linked with media organisations that are perceived to be perpetuating the vice. Sexual harassment is bad for business and nipping it in the bud isn’t just valuable for employees, but also necessary for maintaining relationships with organisations that partner with the media.
5. What would you want young journalists facing a toxic work environment to know?
Have the courage to speak up. Most people get away with violations because they are convinced that those in ‘lower’ levels can never speak up for themselves. When you feel uncomfortable, say so.
If the person does not listen, speak to someone you trust so that they can speak out on your behalf, or go to someone in authority. If that doesn’t work, and you feel ignored, seek external help (from organisations that oversee the media such as the Media Council of Kenya, women organisations such as the Association of Media Women in Kenya or the lawyers’ body Federation of Women Lawyers). No one should ever dim your light. You deserve to be comfortable in the workplace just like anyone else. You deserve to thrive.