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Institutions must be alive to changing nature of sexual harassment

Edward Wanyonyi

The ongoing twitter debate about a woman who was contacted by a customer care representative of a telecommunications firm provides an interesting dimension to the sexual harassment discourse.

While the lady has cited this case as a breach of her privacy as a person and her data, this incident also raises concerns about the laxity with which data is handled by various organisations.

The fact that the staff went ahead and contacted a customer with the suggestions of “getting to know them better” indicates a disregard of data privacy laws and perhaps a prevalent attitude that encourages inappropriate contact in public service.

It can happen either way—customers asking for staff contacts, or otherwise, and following up not on the formal matters without the other party’s consent, willingness or even interest.

This is an issue that both public and private institutions need to urgently discuss widely as it steers close to sexual harassment. The manifestation of sexual harassment is not limited to the overt forms of stalking, accosting, bullying or the violent abusive form of rape, defilement or sodomy.

It also exists in the covert forms of blackmail, subtle coercion and the uninvited, unwelcome, unreciprocated advances, mentions and innuendos of a sexual nature. In this context, the boundary is clear­—the other party is not willing and has expressly stated no. In simple terms, there is no consent.

Any further persistence and insistence effectively progresses one towards sexual harassment which leads to abuse if not stopped. Now, controversy has raged on this matter especially due to socialisation that emphasises to men to be “hunters” who should not take ‘NO’ for an answer.

This school of thought defines masculinity in its patriarchal sense that entitles men by sheer fact of anatomy not decorum. During a recent gender forum on sexual harassment organised by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, speakers including Simon Mbevi of Transform Kenya; Saida Ali an international policy expert, Wambui Ngige of Flone Initiative that was birthed from the #MyDressMyChoice Initiative, Fredric Nyagah of Men Engage Kenya Network and Esther Passaris of Adopt A Light engaged with members of the public on the changing nature of sexual harassment.

From the discussions, it was clear that stereotypes of flawed masculinity trigger the chase and not that pursuit is a wrong thing, especially in desirable relationships and even professional engagements. Indeed, we live in a society which requires persistence to hit targets at work as a result of the capitalistic nature of our economies.

However, when it comes to social interactions, there has to be clear boundaries to ensure professional engagements don’t become uncomfortable with diversion towards solicitation of sexual favours. According to Mbevi, while Kenya has made progress in enacting laws to address sexual offences, two aspects still require urgent attention—socialisation towards respectful relationships both at a personal and professional level and the personalisation of accountability.

Socialisation of men and women needs to encourage fair and honest conversations where both parties understand the differences between positive and negative persistence. Positive persistence in mature relationships comes from a position of respect of another’s feelings and decisions though they might be contrary to your own.

Negative persistence is purely selfish. It does not take ‘NO’ for an answer and easily deteriorates towards sexual harassment. While the legal framework continues to evolve to address the various manifestations of sexual offences, the greater burden lies in personalisation of accountability.

In this context, each and every one of us must take it upon ourselves to understand sexual harassment and speak against it. This is a duty that cannot be merely left to civil society, the Judiciary or activists. Personal accountability requires that we individualis the responsibility of preventing sexual harassment.

Efforts should be made, especially in corporate and public institutions, to ensure that there is a clear system to address sexual harassment. But even as we do this, we need to be conscious of those persons who seek to win attention or huge sums of compensation by making false claims of sexual harassment. The writer is a Media Law and Regulation expert—[email protected]

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