Facing the Elephant in the Room: Sexual harassment holding women down
By Lilian Saka Kiefer
I recently attended a meeting on empowering women for leadership in politics and in public administration. The meeting provided a platform to reflect on various factors that stand in the way of women from advancing into positions of influence.
The issue of sexual harassment came up as an obstacle that must be addressed in order to encourage more women to take up the leadership challenge. In stimulating dialogue, a question was asked: Has anyone who is in this room ever been sexually harassed at work? Has anyone ever experienced sexual harassment? Please raise your hand…
As you might have guessed, none of the women in that room raised their hand. A conclusion was then made that none of them had ever been sexually harassed. It could be true, it may not be true. But the point that went home for me was that sexual harassment has a knack for shaming the victim, such that women are uncomfortable to come forward and testify that it is a real problem. This is holding us down as women.
In general terms, society tends to accept that sexual harassment must be addressed. However, when it is tackled in vague terms, sexual harassment seems to be an impossible problem to deal with. In efforts to get a bit more specific to call this vice by its name and demand change, people tend to shy away.
It is troubling to imagine how much sexual harassment holds women back. This vice counters the efforts invested in empowering women to aim high. Women are sometimes left with the option to give away their dignity in order to survive or drop off and never rise at all.
It is very disturbing to imagine that sexual harassment is so rampart, and yet less talked about. Some people who publicly acknowledge the value of women empowerment are perpetrators of sexual harassment and refuse to see that they themselves are a vice. The silence around the issue sustains it as it tends to protect the perpetrators. I call it an elephant in the room, so big and visible, yet every-one pretends that it is not there. No-one appears ready to talk about it, let alone challenge it. And no one appears bothered that it may turn against them and crush them.
For as long as sexual harassment is not called by its name, and is not called out, it will be almost impossible to deal with it. for as long as the perpetrators know that they are protected, they will continue and they will all get way with it. when our boys today begin to see men going down for sexual harassment, they will know that it won’t fly if they try to get away with it.
The challenge we face is that sexual harassment is so institutionalised such that both men (perpetrators) and women (victims) have come to tolerate it – it has become a norm. Panos Institute Southern Africa consultations with female politicians revealed that sexual harassment is rampart and it is one of the main vices holding women back. We need to stop and think about how the women feel about it, how it affects their self-confidence and self-image. We need to think about how many women have stayed away from politics – and deprived citizens more leadership options – because of sexual harassment.
Women should not have to develop an extremely tough skin to survive sexual harassment. It just has to stop. Women should not have to spend so much energy and effort in dealing with physical and emotional consequences of sexual harassment, questioning themselves and assessing themselves over issues that are totally unnecessary and could be avoided. Unfortunately, this vice of sexual harassment is also used against women, where in some situations, women are pushed to fight for attention of the men and see who will be seen by the biggest fish. The situation, in my view, is reducing women to objects of pleasure. This is why in most cases, when a woman rises up to an important position, there is so much doubt of her performance because our men perceive her as an object of pleasure, not as an equal human being who can also deliver like them, or even better.
Sexual harassment is a vice, we must call it by its name, taking a cue from the #MeToo campaign, and stamp it out. It is possible, as long as we stop shaming the victims, and call out the perpetrators.
The author is Panos Institute Southern Africa Executive Director. For feedback, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.