Breaking the Silence to End Sexual Harassment at workplaces in Uganda #SolidarityWins

“On a project that I was working on, we had to work with Members of Parliament for their input on a legislation we were drafting. So, we went to parliament, to meet with them. As we were walking towards the room, one MP saw me, walked to me and then he started rubbing my back. He then he looked at my arms and said, “Oh my God you have very hairy arms”. He asked me If I understood what that meant to which I said I did not. He then said that “it means that during sex you’ll be very wet” and he could only imagine that the sex must be sweet. This was really annoying, he was a vulgar person, remember, this is the first day I had met him, that was 2013. Later, as we were seated around a table; myself, an Intern, and some other people he was saying sexually explicit stuff. That is one example. At my place of work, my supervisor kept telling me that I look sexy, the accountant in the same organization one day told me that I really really have big boobs. This made me feel very uncomfortable.” Sarah, a 28-year-old Human Rights Lawyer revealed to me. She was young, her career had just begun, so she decided keep this to herself scared of the bullying, stigma, shaming that comes with speaking out. Until today, she is not comfortable with speaking out about the ordeals.

In Uganda, sexual harassment at work places, though prevalent is seldom spoken about. Uganda’s 2016 demographic and health survey found that more than one in five women report having experienced sexual violence. Mostly, the vice finds its safe haven in silence, stigma, weak policies, high unemployment levels as I would discover when I asked a sample of corporate women where they would seek redress if ever faced with sexual harassment at work;

Eva, a 25-year-old Marketing Executive believes that “Reporting sexual harassment in this country and pointing out the committer leads to losing your job and sometimes no employer wants to work with you after that. And in this economy, we do not have rich parents or a lot of money to fall back to, so most of us will prefer silence to talking about it.”

Sandra, 26, a Social Worker said that “If ever I am sexually harassed, I would be afraid to report the case to the police because I believe most of the police stations do not have a gender desk and for the cases, I have heard, most times the blame is shifted on women.”

Kemigisha, 19, says that “I would report my case to the police but I would never share this issue on social media because I wouldn’t want the attention that comes with social media. I don’t be want to be labeled a whore – you know how our society is.”

Izzy, 32, a youth rights advocate says that “It really would depend on the harassment faced. If someone catcalled me, I wouldn’t report it. But if I had a near rape experience or an actual rape I would report the case to police.”

These responses offer insight on why coming out to speak about sexual harassment can be complicated.

 The question is, how can we foster solidarity to strengthen the violence against women prevention movement?

Knowing that silence is the frontline enemy, speaking up is an act of defiance. Collective campaigns like #Metoo #AidToo have given a voice to women to speak up. The key thing is for women to know that they have agency over their bodies, what they do with them is a dictatorship.

Facilitating Human Resource managers to understand what sexual harassment actually means will enable them to consistently pass on this message to staff members to keep it fresh in the organizations, not for the policies to just sit on shelves only to be presented during the auditing season.

In addition, workplaces ought to create safe spaces where staff members can unreservedly report cases major or minor.

“Workplaces should put in place policies against any form of sexual harassment and make avenues through which cases can be reported.  I would have a participatory session with the staff to know their understanding of sexual harassment in the work place, then use their views to build a policy which is accustomed for the work environment and one that’s clearly understood by the staff.  I would create confidential avenues, like an anonymous email chain where these issues can be reported, suggestion boxes among others.” Beatrice a 25-year-old Administrative Assistant suggested.

Safe spaces to speak up about sexual harassment come in handy; Not Your Body offers a great example of how an online platform has taken strides in creating a space where Ugandan women can speak about their experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination. Social media has indeed offered a voice to Ugandan women.

Police has to stand up to the times, the force should be equipped to understand how to deal with sexual harassment issues rather than trivialize the cases that are reported; Lindsey Kukunda speaking to News Deeply mentioned that “I also had a personal experience when I attempted to report sexual harassment to the police. I was lectured and made to feel like it was my fault, and this experience made me wonder what there was to do about it. It also made me wonder how many other women experienced something similar and also didn’t know what to do about it.”

Whatever means work for women in protecting themselves against sexual harassment, these means should be applied because ultimately, women’s lives matter.

From 14th – 16th June, 2018, join an online campaign on the theme Solidarity Wins for Stronger VAW Prevention Movements” by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network, coordinated by Raising Voices in Uganda. Join the conversation on #SolidarityWins

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