The culture crutch: Is sexual harassment really woven into the fabric of our societies?

WAN-IFRA Women in News last month released a first-of-its-kind report on sexual harassment in African media organisations. Its headline figures are worrying: one in two women have faced sexual harassment in the workplace. And this is with just one in three cases being reported. 

Further, women are twice as likely as men to face sexual harassment, which is in line with what studies have consistently shown – that sexual harassment thrives in unequal relationships.

The perpetrators are often those who enjoy privilege, power and protection from harsh penalties. And unfortunately, culture – the shared codes of manner, dress, religion and rituals that should ideally give us a sense of belonging – can very often be the platform on which inequality thrives.

And when it is part of everyday life, it can be difficult to call it out.

“You get into the newsroom expecting to meet people who are culturally enlightened, and for the most part, you do. However, there is still a group that expects you to ‘show respect’ to men and ‘don’t embarrass them’ even when they are making overtures that you find uncomfortable,” said MM during one of the sexual harassment trainings WIN conducts through its Advisory arm across the nine African countries it is active in. 

The conversations during these training sessions illuminated how perpetrators hide behind culture to excuse sexual harassment.

In Rwanda: “We have the traditional hug when two people meet, but there are people who use this opportunity to touch other parts of the body, especially for women – men don’t tend to be subjected to this uncomfortable touching. This puts women in an uncomfortable situation, and when they try to avoid this greeting, they are called out for trying to deny their cultural roots, their Africanness.”

In Uganda: “Some women deliberately dress without underwear on, subjecting us to very uncomfortable situations; it feels like an assault on your senses. Yet, as a man, you are laughed at for speaking out. It is assumed that you should always be welcoming of body parts on display.”

Cultural assumptions normalise inequality, and this can creep into how organisations are run. For instance, those that do not show fairness and a commitment to gender equality in how they hire, how they pay, who they promote and how they deal with complaints subliminally pass on the message to employees that some people matter more than others.

This influences the actions that dominate the workplace. And when it comes to sexual harassment, if victims feel that they will not be believed because of how low on the food chain they are, or that investigations will be biased towards a perpetrator who enjoys the trappings of power, then they will suffer in silence. Or quit. 

“The first and only time I reported sexual harassment, I was told that I took what was said to me out of context. That the reference to my body was ‘just flirting’, it was a compliment. I didn’t think so, and it destroyed my hope in our HR system. So now I keep my head down and avoid social conversations with my colleagues,” said WM during a WIN sexual harassment training. 

The WIN survey report found that of the cases reported, organisations took action less than half of the time (42 per cent). Respondents, who were sampled from eight African countries – Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe – said the overriding reason they do not file complaints is fear that reporting the perpetrators would negatively impact their job.

The other top reasons listed were no known reporting mechanisms being available, and not wanting to be negatively labelled.

Victims will sense the futility in making complaints when they believe perpetrators will use their power to consistently protect themselves.

“When my only female colleague left for another media house last October, my editor told me (that) to be assured of her position, I needed to warm his bed. I quit after being harassed for ‘running to HR’. I felt so helpless and had no one to go to and ended up being demoted. I am still affected five years later,” said one survey respondent from Kenya.

Fortunately, we are witnessing positive steps forward towards breaking down this toxic culture. We are still far off from where we need to be, but these conversations are happening in critical spaces and will continue.

“We can’t hide behind culture; sexual harassment and gender inequality must be addressed head-on. These conversations are coming at a time when Zimbabwe is making strides in addressing sexual harassment. We have promised a raft of reforms as a ministry, including harsher penalties for perpetrators,” said ZimbabweDeputy Minister for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Kindness Paradza during a WIN Advisory session in the country.

Workplace culture can also be changed and shaped through collective effort.

“Take up the responsibility and point out sexual harassment when you witness it, even if the person on the receiving end is not aware of the impact of what they have been subjected to,” says Jane Godia, WIN’s Africa director.

“Younger workers can be targeted, and their acceptance expected because they are thought to be in a position of weakness. Don’t allow that kind of thinking to become normalised. Speak up on their behalf, which will empower them to find their voice.”

Media organisations must commit themselves to ending cultures of: sexual aggression by calling out unwelcome attention and touching, indecent exposure, and assault; sexualised work environments where crass banter is dismissed as ‘how we are’; and gender discrimination.

Media leaders must treat employees fairly and equally and identify and address power dynamics that could entrench patterns of abuse.

“Power shapes the silencing of victim-survivors, offering pushback against naming abusers and protection of the reputation of senior staff. Unmasking and naming where power resides and how it operates will help understand why some people are targeted and why they might be reluctant to report: being on the ‘outskirts of power’ or the ‘margins of their industry’ entails significant risk for many in naming sexual harassment,” notes UN Women.

To manage sexual harassment in organisations, WIN offers these eight guidelines:

  1. Take all complaints seriously and deal with them as soon as possible
  2. Adopt complaints procedures, both official and unofficial
  3. Allow anonymous reporting
  4. Identify a team to investigate sexual harassment cases
  5. Hire experts when needed to bring objectivity, fairness and integrity
  6. Alert the authorities in cases of sexual assault, including rape
  7. Consider temporary suspensions as investigations run
  8. Clarify procedures to all employees

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