How Long will Sexual Harassment Remain a Hush-hush Affair?

By Selamawit Seyoum

Women at all levels of education and occupation endure humiliation and ordeal in the hands of men at work places.  Many women live in a complete riddle why they are sexually harassed by their male counterparts even today, at the turn of the new millennium when enhanced efforts are being exerted to eliminate all forms of violence against women.  In fact despite the enormity of the problem, sexual harassment has never been given due attention in this country.

Some women approached by the Herald cited cases that harassment begins right from the day of interview for a job.  That is the day when, they said, employers, especially in the private organizations, "remind" women that meeting their sexual advances is part of the job description.

"When you go into the boss's offices for an interview, you can't escape those lusty eyes of his that run from the tip of your hair down to your toe assessing your sexual worthiness.  That leaves you in a very uncomfortable situation.  Your qualification for the job is not enough, the boss needs more.  He makes it clear in his own way that you will have to accept his invitation for a date if your really want the job," Simret Tesfaye said while explaining her personal experience with a couple of employers.  There are women workers who live in traumata due to sexual abuses.  They are confronted with hard choices either to succumb to the sexual advances or give up their jobs.

Mekdes Yeshitila, in her twenties, who had been working in a private company explained that the owner of the company forwarded sexual demands following repeated invitations for lunch and dinner which she never accepted.  She said, "I did not quit my job the first time he asked me to go out with him.  I told him right to his face that he was a married man with a kid and should behave accordingly.  However, that did not deter him from making his sexual advances."  She said that he finally forced her to work extra hours and reduced her salary without any concrete  reason. Finally, she resigned.

Another lady, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that she had been attacked by her boss who was accompanying her on a field trip.  She said that her boss, who was far older than she is entered her hotel room uninvited, claiming to discuss maters related to their work and kissed her forcefully.  She said she was startled for she used to respect the man and never expected him to indulge in such a shameful act.  She was then a fresh graduate and that job was her first.  "The first thing that came to my mind was to report this sexual assault to the big boss back at the main office.   However, when I thought of the man who abused me is respected by the whole staff, I realized no one would believe me.  I just could not simply leave the job which I secured with much effort.  At the same time, I did not feel easy to continue working with the offender.  I was confused.  I suffered in silence.  However, I was really grateful that the man did not rape me."

Sexual harassment is prevalent not only in small and private organizations but also in governmental and huge organizations such as UN agencies.  Men harass women irrespective of their social status they never mind whether the women are married or not.

Netsanet Fekade, a graduate of 1999 from the Law Faculty of the Addis Ababa University, had interviewed some women sexually harassed by their employers for her senior essay entitled, "Sexual Harassment Against Women at Work Places and in Schools: The Law and the Practice in Ethiopia."  One of her interviewees, a married woman said she was forced to resign for she could not stand the sexual harassment committed by her boss.  She said that even if she wanted to sue her boss, she had no evidence to produce.  He deliberately and unnecessarily demanded her to work overtime to fulfill his evil intention when there was no witness around.  She said she did not confide the case to her marriage.  The decision she took was to purposely become reluctant and inefficient.  The organization fired her finally.

Even if victims of sexual harassment had the courage to report their cases to big bosses seeking justice, they were, instead, poignantly mistreated.

Another interviewee, a twenty-five-year-old management graduate, had been forcefully kissed by her male colleague who sat by her table.  She went furious and immediately reported to the manager of the organization.  The outrageous response of the manager was, however, that she should have been proud that such a hand-some and 'educated' man had showed interest in her.  He added that she had wasted his (the manager's) time with such "nonsense".

The third woman that Netsanet approached had been threatened by her boss that her contract would be terminated unless she made love with him.  When she declined to do so, he started plotting against her reporting that she was inefficient for the position.  Before the woman turned him down, however, he had drafted a memo approving her efficiency.  When she explained the case to the big boss, the answer she got was no other than "sorry"

Women are also denied promotion and other benefits like training opportunities just because they resist their bosses' sexual advances.  They are discouraged from taking part in some fields that have for long been "exclusively reserved" to men.  One such area is sport.

Seblewongel Tadesse, a young girl, had been very enthusiastic to be a world clas champion in horse race.  She was the only female to be successful in such events in the capital.  She stood first several times and won medals.  She said that one of the officials in the Equestrian Federation made a sexual advance which she rejected.  Then after he turned hostile against her and tried to avenge by denying her right to participate in training courses through she put up a challenge.  She said, she stopped gathering information from him to avoid him.  She said she revealed the case to other persons in the Federation so that they can solve her problem but to no avail.

Female staff of the UN approached by the writer confirmed that sexual harassment exists at their work places.  The harassment is, according to them, committed mainly by bosses against subordinate women employees.  The two types of sexual harassment "quid pro quo" meaning "this for that", which is providing some benefits in exchange for sexual favours and "hostile environment harassment" which is creating an offensive environment for the "defiant" women are said to be common.  As some said women are denied of promotion and contract renewal for rejecting sexual advances.

Many women working in governmental, non-governmental and UN agencies have no second thought about the prevalence of sexual harassment at their work places though they were not willing to relate their personal experiences.  In fact, they even demanded anonymity in order to express their opinion on the issue. They also said that victims of sexual harassment did not usually report nor was the issue discussed openly at work places.

The reason for this according to some interviewees, is the tradition which places men in asexually dominant position and advocate that women should be submissive.  The fact that no measure had been taken against perpetrators had normalized sexual harassment at work places, according to many of the interviewees.  Moreover, they said that a victim would rather like to be silent than to go public with the issue as, mostly, the female is the one to be blamed for it.  They also said as the sexual offence is often committed against women in the absence of a witness the victims feel there is no use in reporting it.

What is more, there is no law on sexual harassment in the country.  Netsanet said in her paper, "A woman may refuse to suffer in silence.  Overcoming the fear of cultural beliefs, she may decide to seek redress for the humiliation and pain she suffered.  Yet she would find out that there is yet another obstacle.  That is, invariability of a comprehensive legal protection for all forms of sexual harassment.  To begin with, Ethiopia does not have a sexual harassment law.  This means that sexual harassment is not defined, nor is its scope delimited.  The few relevant legal provisions which are found scattered here and there, do not provide adequate remedies."

In the late 70s, women were advised, among others, to faint or go limp, urinate, quake like a duck, or sign out loud when they were confronted by possible male attackers, according to a journal of Feminist Geography.  The idea was to drive the attacker away, however, it connotes that men can do whatever they like with women, in this case sexually harass them and there is nothing to be done about it, because may be, it is taken as something natural for men and normal in their relation with women.  So, it is up to the woman to protect herself.  And the best she can do to deal with her male attacker is to engage herself in such seemingly foolish acts.

On the eve of the new millennium, some cooping mechanisms are also forwarded to women as listed in the booklet entitled "SECURITY IN THE FIELD: Information for staff members of the United Nations system."  These mechanisms are probably helpful, at least, for the psychological orientation of the new employees.  Nevertheless, it still indicates that the discriminatory societal attitude against women continues to victimize them despite the measures being taken to protect women's rights.

It seems that the UN has recognized the prevalence of the problem.  Actually, it is only the UN agencies here that the sexual harassment policy which recognizes both the "quid pro quo" and "hostile environmental harassment" exists.

"There is no organization or school that has sexual harassment policy . The only exceptions to this are, the UN agencies operating in Ethiopia," said Netsanet in her paper.

Although individuals in responsible positions of various organizations claim that they were never aware that such a thing is being perpetuated against their female employees significant number of women are suffering from sexual harassment.  It is affecting women's physchological, physical, social and economic life. But there is no measure being taken to combat sexual harassment which purely constitutes sexual discrimination.  Doesn't the convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women include sexual harassment?  For a country like Ethiopia that is a signatory to the above convention with a constitution that calls for protection of the overall rights of women the silence towards sexual harassment is indeed a riddle!