Taking a stand against sexual harassment

Sex harassment

Sexual harassment is a topic we are all familiar with; either we have encountered it or we know someone who has, and it is high time we all take a stand against it.  This was the topic of discussion at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung’s Gender Forum at Alliance Francaise on March 27 moderated by Victoria Rubadiri.

The forum sought to highlight the gaps in the discourse and structures around sexual harassment at work.  

Sexual Harassment Definition

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), sexual harassment is “a sex-based behaviour that is unwelcome and offensive”.

The Employment Act (PDF) in Kenya provides the instances of sexual harassment at work, including:

  1. directly or indirectly requests that employee for sexual intercourse, sexual contact or any other form of sexual activity that contains an implied or express
  • promise of preferential treatment in employment;
  • threat of detrimental treatment in employment; or
  • threat about the present or future employment status of the employee;
  1. uses language whether written or spoken of a sexual nature;
  2. uses visual material of a sexual nature; or
  3. shows physical behaviour of a sexual nature which directly or indirectly subjects the employee to behaviour that is unwelcome or offensive to that employee and that by its nature has a detrimental effect on that employee’s employment, job performance, or job satisfaction.

However, even with these laws and policies at workplaces, sexual harassment cases are still on the rise and have taken different forms, including online harassment.

Gaps in Implementation

One of the main gaps in the fight against harassment is the lack of implementation of the laws in the country.  Not only do we have laws, including the Sexual Offences Act (2006), that provide against sexual harassment, we do have structures such as gender desks for reporting. However, the level to which these are implemented is a question for on many people’s minds.

According to Doreen Areri, a lawyer and one of the panellists at the forum, the definition of sexual harassment is not all-encompassing. She highlighted the gap in the Sexual Offences Act (2006), which only criminalises sexual harassment when it comes to persons in positions of authority and public officials.  This, therefore, ignores harassment when it comes from someone who has no power over the victim, yet it happens.

When it comes to the workplace, the lack of policies is one of the gaps. However, according to Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) Deputy CEO, Rachel Muthoga, while some organisations have the policies, their staff do not know of its existence.

Muthoga, therefore, called for organisations to ensure that they have normalised conversations around sexual harassment policies and not just leave it for crisis days.  She also advised companies to consider things like power dynamics as well as structures in the office that will provide safe spaces for victims of sexual harassment to report.

“Naming and shaming is perhaps the first step in dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace.” – Rachel Muthoga

Questioning culture

Men for Gender Equality Now’s Philip Otieno questioned the ordinariness of harassment and the language with which we discuss it. Tagging in the men, he highlighted how the male-centred society enables male perpetrators of harassment to go scot free even after committing this indecent act.

“In addressing men, we need to engage in discussions about power relations and make them cede ground and look at women as humans rather than just objects of our own gratification,” he said. adding that such discussions should be centred on speaking the emotional language and letting them understand that when someone says No it means no.

Dr Njoki Ngumi of the Nest Collective raised the need to fight myths that places sex and sexuality as taboo.

“It is the only way to escalate discussions further and enhance implementation,” she said.

She called for ethical sex education, where aspects such as power relations and sexual negotiations are highlighted.

Of importance, she adds,  is looking inward to see how we as individuals enable sexual harassment in our own spaces whether private or public.

The aspect of questioning culture also comes in the belief that female victims of sexual harassment or violence are lying.

“In many cases, victims and survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence do not lie because it violates both you as a person and your body,” said Wangu Kanja of the Wangu Kanja Foundation, asking people to be proactive in understanding the laws.


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