Lifting the Lid off Workplace Sexual Harassment in Ethiopia (by Billene Seyoum)

This is the second piece in our series on workplace sexual harassment this week.

Nip it in the Bud

I was facilitating a workshop some years back outside of Addis Ababa for a public sector institution. As I walk back and forth the room sharing information, assigning tasks and preparing materials for participants, I continuously feel an eerie sensation of being watched. Indeed there are always eyes on one when facilitating workshops; whether you like it or not, you take centre stage. Once establishing rapport with participants though, all awkward stares settle and we go about our work. This sensation of being watched though feels different, and begins to make me uncomfortable in the coming days.

As my contact information is provided in the workshop information note, I begin receiving random texts on my phone from one of the participants; first asking me about work related questions then awkwardly transitioning into more personalized and “familiar” texts. I keep my responses curt and focused on the work that brought us together, yet his texts are imbued with ‘sweetie’ and other endearments. I brush it off.

A few days later back in the office, I receive an email from the same individual. He shares in the email how he could not be quite any longer and that he spent the past three days of the workshop watching me and how I move, scanning my body, and that how I walk and talk, in his own words, was “f***king sweet.” He continues to share that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. I sit in my chair quite shocked as the realization dawns upon me that this could go astray pretty quickly unless nipped in the bud. I share this with my male colleagues who are quite amused by the email and empathetic towards him. “What should he do if he liked what he saw?” I am told mockingly. I quickly respond to his email addressing the work related components he was inquiring about and then tell him that I found his other declarations inappropriate, trespassing our professional boundaries, and making me quite uncomfortable. He responds with another persistent email defending his transgressions to which I highlight to him that should his unwanted advances and declarations via email and text continue, I would have no choice but to scale it to my boss and on to his boss – the Minister.

The incident ended there.
Tip of the Iceberg

Last year through my company Earuyan Solutions,  we ran a small anonymous survey to scan the prevalence of sexual harassment within Ethiopian workplaces. In ten short questions we managed to receive eye-opening responses that have informed the orientation/training we deliver to organizations on ‘Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’. When asked which behaviours respondents have faced within their workplaces, the most common ones included, utilization of language which made one feel uncomfortable; inappropriate touching; comments on one’s appearance which made them feel uncomfortable; and inappropriate jokes. However, some cases also included requests of a sexual relationship. Respondents indicated that most of these incidents were initiated by their male bosses or colleagues, and in some cases by clients. However,   in most incidents shared, respondents stated that they did not scale it up to their supervisors, where a supervisor was not the one harassing, or to anyone else for fear of being reprimanded or not taken seriously. In other cases, respondents shared that this is a common practice in their organizations and they come to find out about it through other colleagues who have had similar experiences.

The Impact  

Given that sexual harassment happens at a personal level, it seems quite difficult for the unaffected to understand the impact on those who are subjected to such instances. While default responses to sexual harassment is that “it’s common” and an “expression of admiration”, such a treatment of the issue dismisses the underlying power dynamics that often drive these kind of violations. Indeed sexual attraction is natural, yet in the inability to differentiate between ‘expressing attraction’ from ‘harassment’, we most often fail to draw the line between gaining consent and unwanted transgressions. In the case of the latter, the impact on those subjected to unwanted advances of a sexual nature bears heavily on their sense of security, productivity, and in creating a hostile work environment for both the victim and others who may be witnesses.

Lid Off – Confronting the Taboo  

In a recent workshop I facilitated, some female members expressed privately the prevalence of sexual harassment cases in that specific workplace. Once again a deterrent factor for those in the organization from reporting, had to do with the absence of policies in place within the organization as well as at a national level which provides a process and redress mechanisms for those confronted by these issues. The informant shared grave cases in which male members were transferred into other roles within the organization despite a pattern of harassing female employees; merely given the light slap on the wrist and moved elsewhere in a show of quasi concern, not matching the severity of the situation.

Where some courageous women have stepped up and tried to find redress by reporting such incidents, they are often met by resistance from management to explore the claims; although employers have a responsibility to investigate and ensure their employees well being and safety. Hence, the often cited response that it’s not worth it to report as patriarchal work environments will rarely lift a hand to confront their own biases. At times, organizations are often caught by surprise (as client organizations have shared) and are confused by what measures they need to take when such issues arise as they have not had policies put in place beforehand to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Regardless, the blatant truth that we can no longer deny is that sexual harassment in the Ethiopian workplace also exists and the sooner we accept this reality openly, the better we can organize and strategize to prevent – not only address cases once they have happened.

Prevention is Half the Cure  
Where do we start? Some low-hanging fruits to ensure workplaces are ready to address such issues:

  • Putting in place organizational policies that clearly affirms zero-tolerance and indicates reporting, investigation and redress mechanisms.
  • Sensitizing and capacitating human resource personnel and senior members of management who are often the first point of reporting, to adequately follow the due process in their policies, without watering down the issues based on personal biases and stereotypes;
  • Continuously orient and sensitize staff members on the organization’s zero-tolerance policy and what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace.

Without these minimum standards, expecting victims of workplace sexual harassment (female and male) to come out and report without fostering a conducive work environment that can adequately deal with such issues, is as good as wrongly nurturing a ‘hush, this is normal’ work environment.

No, sexual harassment in the workplace or any place, is not normal!

Billene Seyoum is the curator of AfricanFeminism (AF) and the Managing Director of Earuyan Solutions – a feminist social enterprise supporting organizations and individuals promote gender equality and transformative leadership. If your organization/company is interested to learn more about Earuyan Solution’s ‘Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace’ orientation, email with your request.  

1 Comment
  1. A comment on women not telling harassments to their bosses or else. I think this mainly an urban phenomenon. I grew up in a rural society in Ethiopia. Suppose a girl is harassed or anything happened to her, she immediately tells to her brother or father that indicating the person harassing. This way many harassers have lost their lives as the families of the girl counter-attack in a more severe manner. I personally had a story. My sister was harassed by a local driver and she told me and another brother. We then planned on how to revenge which we did secretly and the driver lost his eyes in the middle night attack we committed. That is the way we make women too much respected especially in northern Ethiopia.

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