As Zimbabwe celebrates the liberation of women through economic empowerment programmes, it appears to have escaped many that the majority of working women are sexually harassed in their workplaces on a daily basis.
BY MELODY CHIKONO
Although labour legislation prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, such harassment is common and generally not prosecuted. Many cases are often never reported because of fear of embarrassment or termination of contracts.
According to UN Women, the economic empowerment of women lies at the heart of gender equality which is a vital cog in the sustainable development machinery.
The Global Flagship Report, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 states that sexual harassment functions as a barrier to women’s empowerment and highlighted that employers need to create a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is considered to be an unfair labour practice, according to the Zimbabwe Labour Relations Act.
The country has a national gender policy to deal with such issues. As it is an unfair labour practice, victims of sexual harassment can report offences through the Labour officers who are in charge of conciliation of employment-related disputes and unfair labour practices.
However, due to economic hardships and low employment rates, fear of victimisation, at the workplace and at home, most cases of sexual harassment have gone unreported.
Both government and the donor community have come in support of women economic empowerment, which has turned to be centred at the heart of the rural woman and the disadvantaged urban few.
Economic empowerment for women in Zimbabwe is largely associated with small-scale informal ventures including cross-border trade, vending, hairdressing, subsistence farming and care work, among others. Mainstream economic activities such as mining, banking, manufacturing, construction and retail have remained largely male-dominated and females are routinely subjected to sexual harassment.
Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association transformative justice manager Tariro Tandi said sexual harassment was the greatest factor deterring women from realising the full actualisation of their economic empowerment in Zimbabwe.
She bemoaned the lack of stiffer penalties against offendors saying a sexual policy was needed if women economic empowerment was to be achieved.
“Sexual harassment deters women from thriving. Women have capabilities, but somehow you have to prove themselves beyond that. Many women have fallen victim, but they are afraid to report for fear of losing their jobs. It is one factor that is deterring women from realising the full actualisation of their economic empowerment,” she said.
“We need penalties. We need to have a sexual policy, if we are to achieve women economic empowerment.”
Tandi said nine out of 10 cases of sexual harassment resulted in divorce, adding that there were no suitable measures in the Labour Act for sexual harassment at the workplace, as no company was yet to be penalised.
She also said Zimbabwe was a largely patriarchal society and notions of dominant males played a major role in promoting sexual harassment at work.
This manifold crisis is one that confronts Zimbabwean working women as they face harassment at the work place as Marylyn Gomo (not real name), recalled waking up one day a divorcee and out of work.
She recounted being a victim of sexual harassment at work at the hands of her employer. When she stood up to him she was fired under the pretext of the watershed 2015 Supreme Court ruling that okayed the dismissal of employees on three months’ notice.
“I am a victim of sexual harassment. I regret the day I told my husband about my experience at work because he sent me packing, accusing me of adultery. I had a managerial position in the company I worked for and I thought I could stand up to my boss after a harassment encounter. I reported him, but a week after, I was given a three-month termination notice,” she said.
Some women have lost their jobs under the pretext of this law, but the reality being that they tried to stand up against sexual harassment. Several women who spoke to NewsDay confirmed this.
In Zimbabwe, the Labour Code has no sufficient regulation for sexual harassment and there are no sanctions and no labour inspections to ensure enforcement.
Gomo highlighted the need to amend legislation to make sexual harassment prevention and response possible and to remove taboos through the active involvement of employers, trade unions, civil society as well as the government.
Sexual harassment has emerged as a major problem being faced by employed women in Zimbabwe with most of them being forced to make tough decisions in these trying times of the economy. Most companies have no policies that make sexual harassment a dismissible offence.