Sexual harassment: Enough is enough!

Sexual harassment: Enough is enough!

Date: January 1, 1970
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“PLEASE help us to call for an investigation into our problems because we have suffered for too long. We are women working for a powerful and well-known parastatal company in Ndola?”

‘"PLEASE help us to call for an investigation into our problems because we have suffered for too long. We are women working for a powerful and well-known parastatal company in Ndola…’"

This opening statement comes from a letter sent to the media by a group of Zambian women. The letter chronicles how sexual harassment by two men in their place of work, continuously violates their right to work; their right to safety in the workplace; and their access right to equal opportunity in terms of promotion and training at work.

Two forms of gender-based violence are illustrated in the women”s letter – sexual harassment, and the emotional and psychological abuse of women.

Sexual harassment is any unwanted behaviour or conduct of a sexual nature which can take physical, verbal or non-verbal forms, according to the Sexual Harassment Education Project (SHEP) based in South Africa.

‘"… In the case of us women, it is a sad story. If he makes sexual advances and you decline, then you have dug your own grave, because he will make sure you suffer, no matter how hard you work,’" the women say in reference to the senior of the two male officials who work in the company”’s (name known) human resources department.

The women further state how women and men without qualifications are promoted over women who may have refused the official”s sexual advancements, while both women and men who speak out against the injustices either leave or are transferred.

‘"Three-quarters of the qualified staff have been forced to resign due to frustration. He has lately been creating unnecessary transfers to rural areas to frustrate some employees who stand up to defend their rights,’" the women write in their letter.

The women say that they cannot seek redress through their union, which is ‘"weak’", nor from higher authorities within the company whom they allege  are ‘"friends’" of the two officials.

‘"We want freedom and a conducive working environment restored at this company. Please help us,’" the letter says.

The women request that their letter be published  and/or on passed to organisations like Zambia”s Permanent Human Rights Commission, Women for Change, Women in Law in Southern Africa(WLSA), among others, to investigate their complaints.

Sexual harassment in the workplace affects women disproportionately, because women are dependent on men as bosses and supervisors for their advancement. This makes them vulnerable to the unequal power relations between women and men that are entrenched by employment policies and conditions of service which do not incorporate gender justice.

While these women have chosen to put the violations against them in writing, like many women in such situations they remain anonymous because they fear losing their jobs or being victimised or alienated by their colleagues.

With no national policy in Zambia on sexual harassment and no mechanisms to provide women with the legal, psychological and financial support they need to publicly take up their case without fear of reprisal, once again these women are trapped in a vicious cycle of having to live with the harassment or ultimately leave their jobs.

Sexual harassment of workers by men or women in positions of authority is a human rights violation. There was a reported case, again in Ndola on the Copperbelt,  of a senior female employee who sexually harassed her official driver. But, the targets of this abuse in eight, if not nine out of 10 cases, are  women.

Managers at any level should not violate the rights of their colleagues in any form, and if they do, this is a clear sign that they do not have the integrity required to hold the position. For it is not paper qualifications alone which should ultimately be the criteria for who fits the bill for senior jobs. One”s character record must count too.

The women”s letter may not, in the short-term, have the impact they intended, because society still tends not to ‘"believe’" women and puts the burden of proof on them. We need to devise and implement a Code of Good Practice on Handling Sexual Harassment cases across the board in all of Zambia”s institutions to stop such sexist acts.

These women, however, should be commended for putting their story on paper. They have exercised their freedom of expression to expose a form of  gender-based violence which is far too hidden.

Charles Chisala is a Zambian journalist and chairperson of the Zambia Media Watch.

 This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

Contact Jan Moolman at for more information.

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