Sexual harassment should not be trivualised

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sexual harassment in the workplace has long been regarded as taboo, but it continues to plague countless organisations, writes Neo Semono.

With the 16 Days of Activism for no Violence Against Women and Children campaign already in full swing, civil organisations hope more awareness will be raised around this issue.

According to researchers, sexual harassment is found across various sectors of the labour market but seems to be most prevalent in male dominated sectors such as mining, construction, entertainment and the media.

Senior researcher at the Tshwaranang legal advocacy centre, Lisa Vetten, says sexual harassment in the workplace is often trivialised. She says it is a form of abuse that gets far less attention than it should.

"It is often trivialised in that its victims are told that they cannot take a joke and are without a sense of humour," she says.

"It is a form of abuse; the consequences for victims spill over into their personal lives as people will take sides and make the victim feel isolated."

The National Economic Development and Labour Council's (Nedlac) labour relations act of 1995, defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual attention becomes sexual harassment if the behaviour is persistent even though a single incident can constitute sexual harassment. If the recipient of such advances has made it clear that the behaviour is offensive or when the perpetrator should have known that the behaviour is regarded as unacceptable, this is regarded as sexual harassment, reads the document.

Forms of sexual harassment are either physical, verbal and non-verbal. Verbal sexual harassment includes sexual overtones while non-verbal harassment includes unwelcome gestures.

Acting Director of the Johannesburg based non-profit organisation, the Sexual Harassment Education Project (SHEP), Nonhlanhla Tshabalala, says victims of sexual harassment tend not to report cases in fear of being victimised.

"It is a secretive matter. Its victims, mostly women tend, not to report it in fear that no-one will believe them or feel that they have done something wrong.

"What is frightening is that victims can be raped. Sexual harassment can lead to domestic violence and it also impedes on productivity at work," warned Tshabalala.

"It's about power relations where you find that the perpetrator is in a higher position and as a result this puts the victim in a position where she/he is afraid to lose their job and therefore afraid to report the matter to human resources (HR)," she says.

In a recent study, SHEP found that 77 percent of women and 20 percent of men had fallen victim to sexual harassment. They also found that the number of men reporting sexual harassment is on the rise.

"Recently we see more men coming forward. They used to be afraid that if they report it, they will be regarded as not being man enough.

"It has no class or race, it is unwelcome, unwanted and is based on sexuality, gender and sexual orientation," she says.

Tshabalala indicated that many employees are unaware of existing policies in their organisations.

"Employees are not made aware of existing policies. It should be given to employees and made visible through things like posters in the workplace".

The eradication of sexual harassment and abuse in general according to Tshabalala also depends on the education of boys especially starting from a young age.