Let’s talk! Confronting the age-old problem of sexual harassment
What you need to know:
- Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
- Sexual harassment is not limited to office space. It happens everywhere – from formal to informal interactions; in the online and offline spaces.
Early February, 23-year-old Esther*, started her two-month internship at a broadcast media company in Nairobi.
She is a Media and Communication student at a local university where she majored in electronic media. Two weeks into her internship, the company’s head of production, a male in his early 30s, started making unwelcome sexual moves on her.
“Every time, he was around me, he could tell me I have a nice body and that he could not wait to have me in his bed,” she shares.
“At first, I laughed it off. But the comments kept coming. He could call me in the middle of the night and tell me how he missed me, yet he and I were in the office, the whole time.”
This went on for about a week until she felt it was about time to make it clear that she wasn’t interested in his sex innuendos.
Incidentally, both had plans to confront each other on the same day. She arrived at the office, ready to speak her mind, only for him to come to her desk, grab her hand and pull her to an outdoor garden.
“I want to have sex with you. So when is that happening?” he asked her.
Esther says she was shocked by his outright demand.
“I told him I respect myself so much that I cannot sleep with him for just a night and walk away like nothing happened,” she says.
From then, he started avoiding her and could not assign her any roles. She spent sleepless nights wondering what her next move should be, having been cut off from gaining practical experience. She reached out to a female colleague.
It is a small-scale company with less than 10 employees, she says.
Her response was even more depressing: “He is known for that behaviour and there is nothing you can do. We don’t have guidelines on who to report to when that happens. Just let it go.”
It was until she threatened to tell his wife of his unprofessional behaviour that he changed and resumed treating her professionally – sending her out for assignments and according her the necessary support in line of duty.
Esther’s experience is a definitive example of quid pro quo harassment, a form of sexual harassment in which employment decisions are made based on an employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual behaviour. In this case, the head of department withdrawing his supervisory role on her because she declined his demand for sexual relations.
Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Sexual harassment is not limited to office space. It happens everywhere – from formal to informal interactions; in the online and offline spaces.
It happens on social media, markets, supermarkets, gyms, hotels, salons, tea buying centres, churches, banking halls or on the road as one heads to the shop or the river. The list is long.
In Kenya, sexual harassment is a criminal offence. Clause 23 of the Sexual Offences Act (2006) prohibits any person in authority or holding a public office from making sexual advances or requests. Such a person is liable to a minimum three-year jail term or penalty of not less than Sh100,000.
The Act further criminalises other forms of sexual harassment such as sexual assault, attempted rape and indecent acts. These offences attract a five to a 10-year jail term.
Busia Woman Representative Ms Florence Mutua had through her Sexual Offences (Amendment), 2016 sought to further specify forms of sexual harassment.
She wanted “any contact between any part of the body of a person with the genital organs, breasts or buttocks of another …and exposure or display (of the same) or pornographic material to any person against his or her will,” to be criminalised. The bill failed to get the legislators’ approval.
On the other hand, previously under the Employment Act (2007), only companies with more than 20 employees were bound by law to have a sexual harassment policy.
But now, the Employment (Amendment) Act, 2019, demands of firms with more than five employees to have the policy. It should clearly state that each employee is entitled to employment that is free of sexual harassment, how to report the offences and redress measures thereof.
Despite the existence of anti-sexual harassment laws, the reality of women and men becoming victims is evident.
Scanty statistics are available on offline sexual harassment. The media has, however, captured such cases. For instance, last year, a police officer in Nakuru was caught on camera pulling a suspect’s genitals in an attempt to force him to board a waiting police vehicle.
For online, studies on digital security have shown prevalence of sexual harassment. A 2016 joint survey by Association of Media Women in Kenya (Amwik) and Article 19 Eastern Africa established that some 75 per cent of female journalists in Kenya have suffered online harassment, these included sexual harassment.
Available evidence only shows cases of employees suing their managers or executives for sexual harassment but not an ordinary citizen against the other, an indication of either the public’s ignorance or disillusionment.
It is possible to successfully litigate a sexual harassment offence.
In 2017, a Kericho Employment and Labour Relations court awarded a female clinical officer Sh600,000 as general damages for sexual harassment. In case 53 of 2017, the officer had sued her manager for sexual advances. She declined, a decision she argued to have prompted him to end her employment at the health facility.
Diamond Trust Bank, Head of HR Ms Lillian Ngala, says a human resource officer is obliged to take action against claims of sexual harassment.
Ignoring the complaints
The aggrieved member of the staff must, however, provide proof to the claim, which can be in form of emails, calls, texts or colleagues to whom one has confided.
Ignoring the complaints could be tantamount to abetting sexual harassment in the workplace, a conduct that can lead to one losing certificate of practice with Institute of Human Resource Management, she says.
She observes that annual sensitisation of staff through strategies such as refresher courses and email reminders, are crucial to eliminating breeding ground for sexual harassment.
Eagle HR Consultants Chief Executive Officer, Mr Patrick Mutisya, adds that an employee has a right to seek justice through the court if the employer fails to take action within 14 days of notice.
“The person who fails to take action is actually a collaborator (in abetting the offence),”says Mr Mutisya.
But to successfully prosecute such as case, one needs to provide concrete evidence such as an email or a letter, he advises.
Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya (Fida-Kenya) Legal Counsel, Ms Vivian Mwende says “when it comes to sexual harassment, the burden of proof lies with the person who is claiming sexual harassment.”
Labour Policy Consultant at Learn Africa Solutions, Mr Alphonce Were says employers must purpose to educate their employees to avoid normalising sexual harassment.
“Employees should be aware that sexual statements about their body parts are not normal jokes,” he says.
This is my story...Sabina Chege
In March 2018, Murang’a Woman Representative Ms Sabina Chege, found herself in the middle of a storm.
An alleged conman, Benson Chacha was using her number to solicit money from Cabinet Secretaries and her fellow MPs in addition to sending the MPs sexually explicit messages.
Ms Chege together with 13 other female MPs reported the harassment to Parliament Police Station. When Directorate of Criminal Investigations, director Mr George Kinoti appeared before the National Assembly Committee on National Security to shed light on investigations of the matter, he said he had concluded that “there is special relation between the complainants and the suspect.”
This opened the floor for online sexual harassment against Ms Chege with a Twitter account even opened using her photo and that of the suspect, and using an implicating username. The account is still active to-date.
Later, the DCI refuted the “special relation” statement but the damage was already done on the part of Ms Chege.
The harassment was “a worst case scenario,” Ms Chege says.
“It is really sad even the way the police handled the matter. We are still in court. The court has delayed the case till to-day. If somebody at my level can be treated that way, what about an ordinary woman?” she wonders.
For nominated Member of the Nairobi County Assembly Ms Silvia Museiya, being spammed with sexually suggestive conversations on her phone and social media accounts is common.
“I just ignore,” she says, “The moment you start indulging, it becomes a back and forth issue. There is an assumption that women in leadership have used sex to get up, and so the best way to handle it is to prove that you have a mind of your own, and that you are confident in your own space, and men can read that very easily.”
Unsafe behind the wheel: An Uber driver and her ‘sexual advances’ journey
Peris Wangari Wanjiku, an Uber driver, recalls a time she picked a client in Langa’ta who wanted to go to Kahawa West. On their way, Ms Wanjiku says the client, who had been talkative for most of the trip disclosed he had no place to go and requested her to spend the night with him in the car.
As an act of kindness, and to avoid a confrontation, she decided to park her car at a petrol station along Thika Road, the safest place she could think of, until dawn.
For her, working as a taxi driver in Nairobi has been the most enjoyable and rewarding form of employment but it has come with a fair share of challenges.
Ms Wanjiku says most of her male clients make sexual advances at her and it does not amuse her anymore because she knows how to handle such behaviour. Some ask her for a date, while others make uninvited remarks.
Many of her male clients, she reveals, start hitting on her the moment they start the journey. They will tell her how beautiful she is and request for a date.
On average, five out of every 10 male clients, she says, make sexual advances at her.
This, she says, mostly happens at night when ferrying inebriated clients, with both young and old clients making unwelcome advances in equal measure.
“Many start telling me they want to take me for coffee and get to know me because they are having issues with either their girlfriends or wives. They will shower me with compliments, saying they like aggressive and hard-working women like me, and not their lazy wives and girlfriends,” she says.
Keen not to bring an argument or a misunderstanding in the course of their journey, Ms Wanjiku says she plays along and remains polite until they reach their destination. They then strike a deal that they talk over the phone the following day, as a gesture of politeness.
“Many of them will call the following day and that is when I tell them I am married and a family woman who is only in business to fend for my family,” she says.
One time, she says, she got a request from a man of Chinese origin. When they got to their destination, she says the Chinese man looked at her, gave her some extra money and told her to go home and cook for the children.
Ms Wanjiku reveals that in her kind of business, she can only be polite to the male clients lest she losses business. What she ensures is that she does not allow the advances to go beyond limits.
Despite the sexual advances, she says male clients are usually very friendly, generous and has never encountered a violent one.
A gym instructor, his female clients and the limits
The gym is a great place for rejuvenating the body and mind. It can, however, be an intimidating and daunting place, making one feel vulnerable.
Like many other environments, it is prone to sexual harassment with the most common types including being unnecessarily stared at, indecent touch, having one’s personal space invaded without invitation, and unnecessary comments about appearance.
The gym involves a lot of close contact between the instructor and the client. This is where the thin line between upholding professionalism and managing emotional attachment that comes with hours, weeks, months and even years of an instructor training one client comes in.
Studies show that women are the most sexually harassed in the gym, but men too, are prone to harassment.
Arnold Opuka*, a gym instructor in Kisumu, is alive to this fact. When we meet him at his place of work, he tells The Voice that he has also been a victim of sexual harassment.
Suggestive comments about their physique abound, with women referring to them as hunks, and suggesting which parts of their bodies the instructor should touch as they train.
"Many of these women, aged between 35 and 55 years, have money and easily influence young instructors. Some have fallen victims and lost their jobs," says Mr Opuka.
He reveals that the women are tactful, only giving glances with limited open expressions of their desire for someone. This, he says, requires a keen eye to notice the advances.
At times, especially during stretching exercises, some will do the routines suggestively.
He, however, reveals that the actual sexual advances happen during private sessions.
"The women are more open and tempt instructors by the manner in which they act around you," says the 31-year-old.
He adds that when these women come to the gym, their eyes are not only trained on the instructors, but also the young well-built men who work out in the gym.
While most of these incidences appear consensual, he maintains that it is wrong and can be avoided, warning his colleagues against according specific clients special attention as that is bound to build attachment.
"Women are a jealous lot and that is why you have to treat all of them equally. Smile with all, psyche and assist all, and above all, be professional,” says Mr Opuka.
Here's what constitutes sexual harassment
- Unwanted kissing, touching of breasts or genitals
- Butt slapping
- Referring to an adult as a girl, hunk, doll, babe, or honey
- Requests for sexual favours
- Making unwanted telephone calls.
- Repeated compliments of one’s appearance
- Sexually suggestive gestures, looks
- Discussing one’s sex life in front of others
- Cornering someone in a tight space
- Making sexual jokes
- Sending sexually suggestive text messages or emails
- Leaving unwanted gifts of a sexual or romantic nature
- Spreading sexual rumours about a colleague
- Repeated hugs or other unwanted touching (such as a hand on another’s back)