I attended a presentation on sexual harassment in media on Thursday evening at Book Café in Harare and I thought I should share some of my experiences in as far as that problem is concerned.
Sexual harassment is a very serious matter that impacts negatively on the victim who generally is a woman. And because women are usually the victims, the problem is trivialised.
Many years ago, when I was still very new in journalism I also experienced sexual harassment.
I had just been employed with a local tabloid newspaper and hardly two months into the job, had I started receiving sexually suggestive telephone calls that petrified me.
One morning as I walked into the elevator, I found myself in the company of one of the high-ranking company executives who I greeted politely.
He responded by saying: “But why are you avoiding my calls, Ropafadzo. . .?” I remembered the voice.
That was indeed the man that had been calling me every morning and that realisation instilled so much fear in me.
I immediately informed my editor, an elderly journalist who is also an accomplished author.
He was visibly shocked and surprised about this development.
I told him exactly what the company executive had been saying to me on the phone.
The messages were sexually suggestive and that made me uncomfortable and affected my performance at work.
The editor repeatedly and continuously asked me if I was really sure that it was the executive who had been calling me. “Did he really do that?” he asked.
And when I told my colleagues what had been happening, they too just brushed it off as a joke and that left me in a very weak position.
But I had to do something to escape this hazard. I decided to apply for a job with a local broadcasting company after responding to a television advert.
I was called for an interview where five men were panellists. I passed this round of interviews and was informed that I would be notified later about the next and final interviews.
Then the phone calls started flowing in. One by one, except for only one panellist, the men called inviting me either to dinner or a night out.
The men were suggesting that I be intimate with them. That freaked me out and that made me realise just how defenceless I was.
“You have got the job so don’t worry. Let us have fun,” said one of them. What fun do you have with an employer in the middle of the night?
As I was planning on my next move, I learnt that the executive had started his own company and that he was leaving the newspaper.
This man was old enough to be my father and that is what actually annoyed me.
Sexual harassment may take a variety of forms, ranging from verbal, visual or physical abuse of a sexual nature.
These can be comments about clothing, personal behaviour or a person’s body, sexual or sex-based jokes or repeatedly asking a person out.
Patting, stroking or inappropriate touching of a person’s clothing, derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a sexual nature, following a person and looking down and up a person’s body denotes sexual harassment.
Deputy Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development Jessie Majome described sexual harassment as the persistent and unwanted sexual attention.
“If a compliment does not elicit a response, it means that you have crossed the line. If they don’t welcome it, it is a signal that they don’t like it. Men should know that no human being should be touched in a sexual manner,” she said at the Book Café presentation.
“I implore journalists to communicate issues of sexual harassment because it is a very serious offence.”
There is an assumption that every company has a code of conduct, but labour and legal experts say this is largely ignored and absent in Zimbabwe.
There is a gap between national laws and policies, and what really goes on in workplaces.
Nixon Nembaware from Padare Forum on Gender said he had the privilege of working with a newspaper company and although the code of conduct was clear on how to deal with sexual harassment, he said there was a hidden informal culture which was stronger than the pronounced culture at the workplace.
“Harassers share targets and victories, so how do we break this nexus of evil? To be honest, it is not the employees but students who are on attachment that are mostly victims.”
Nembaware said sexual harassment potentially exposes victims to HIV and Aids because some journalists had actually been raped.
However, many of these cases go unreported and it is imperative for tertiary institutions to impart survival skills to graduating students, so that they are empowered to fight sexual harassment at the workplace.
Both men and women can be sexually harassed, including by those from the same or opposite sex.
The fact remains that sexual harassment is alive and real at most working environments and women have to be more assertive to stand up to these shameless harassers.