Beyond the Hashtag – Dealing with the scourge of sexual abuse

I recently posted on social media the experience of a friend who is constantly sexually harassed by the founder of the organization that she works for. In responding to the post, another female friend shared her experience with me in private, and when I asked her to share her experience with the public even anonymously, she declined. This is despite the fact that that incident with her boss, happened a while back. Research has established the prevalence of sexual abuse in our society with a global statistics stating that close to 8 in 10 women experience harassment in the workplace (Feldblum and Lipnic 2016). This may be an underreported figure as most of the victims are constrained by the fear of stigmatization to live in silence rather than share their experience. Research also suggests that only a small number of those who experience harassment (one in ten) ever formally report incidents of harassment—(Cortina and Berdahl 2008). This article explores the issue of sexual abuse in the workplace highlighting three stakeholders – the victim, the perpetrator and the employer. Ignorance is one of the factors that fuels the incidence of sexual abuse. Ignorance of the risk factor, the behaviour of predators, support for survivours and the imperative of personal accountability for ensuring that the next person does not become a victim. The last point is perhaps a critical mindset that survivours must have to save themselves, and more importantly, the next person. This is the reason survivours must speak out because silence emboldens the perpetrator to continue. Most sexual abuse incidences occur between the perpetrators and the survivours in an enclosed space. This enables the act to occur in a way that leaves no witness since most reported incidents happen without a witness. While this situation is empowering for the perpetrator, the survivour can also find it as a safety of silence after the act. A survivor may choose to be silent to protect his or her dignity since no one else knows about it. The pain of stigma must however be less than the protection of the tribe. Reporting an abuse does not only help stop the abuse, but it also helps protect the next potential victim, and gives the perpetrators the chance to get help because they are also ‘victims’ of their own behaviour. As a matter of fact, some of the traits that perpetrators are known to exhibit include emotional shallowness, narcissistic lack of empathy, impulsive and overly aggressive behaviours, and absence of interpersonal intimacies (Chesire, 2004; Craissati, 2005; Groth, 1979). Sexual abuse has been described as an act of power and control and includes a wide range of abusive acts (McGregor et aI, 2009). The word ‘rape’ is from the Latin word “ra-pere,” meaning to seize. (MedicineNet.com). If we apply the idea of Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory, which is a framework for cross-cultural communication, Africa’s culture is high on the Power Distance. Our society is very hierarchical in its social arrangement. Certain members of society defer to other members based on power, which is derived from a range of sources including, but not limited to wealth, age, politics, spirituality, and position. It is no surprise that sexual intimidation and harassment is one of the instruments of the executing that “power.” Indeed, if a “#metoo” campaign were executed in Nigeria today, I doubt if any of the segment of society would be spared of the scandal that might likely unfold. This epidemic is not just a social problem; it has other ramifications including economics and health, in terms of its impact and some cases, the diagnosis. The human trafficking problem is a huge economic problem globally and sexual abuse has significant impact on the mental and physical health of survivours. In fact, research has linked sexual harassment to depression; one study reported that one in ten women who experienced harassment had such severe symptoms that they met the definition of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Dansky and Kilpatrick 1997). These impact may also include anxiety, fear, depression, self-destructive behaviour, somatic symptoms, headache, gynecologic complaints, rape trauma syndrome, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, increased use of drugs or alcohol, irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, and fibromyalgia may occur (Ahrens & Camp- bell, 2000; Luce et aI., 2010; Tavara, 2006), 2010; Stein et aI., 2004; Ullman, 1999; Welch & Mason, 2007). This is without counting other social and productivity cost to organisations and the economy as a whole. When you ask an average Nigerian what the greatest challenge facing the continent is, most will mention corruption—“the abuse of power for personal gain”. A thorough dissection of the subject of corruption may reveal the interplay between abuse of power and sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a criminal offense, according to the Section 262(1) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011, which provides that:”Any person who sexually harasses another is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years.”Additionally, Section 254(C) (1) (g) of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 (as amended in 2010) makes specific provisions granting the National Industrial Court of Nigeria exclusive jurisdiction over causes and matters “relating to or connected with any dispute arising from discrimination or sexual harassment at the workplace.”According to the amended civil procedure rules of the National Industrial Court (NIC), sexual abuse is: “a. Physical conduct of a sexual nature: such as unwanted physical contact, ranging from touching to sexual assault and rape, strip search by or in the presence of the opposite sex, gesture that constitutes the alleged sexual harassment; and/or1.A verbal form of sexual harassment: such as unwelcome innuendoes, suggestions and hints, sexual advances, comments with sexual overtones, sex-related jokes or insults, or unwelcome graphic comments about a person’s body, unwelcome and inappropriate enquiries about a person’s sex life and unwelcome whistling at a person or group of persons, any document, material or exhibit in further support of the claim; and/or1.A non-verbal form of sexual harassment which includes unwelcome gestures, indecent exposures, and unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures and objects ; and/or1.Quid pro quo harassment where an owner, employer, supervisor, member of management or co-employee, undertakes or attempts to influence or influences the process of employment, promotion, training, discipline, dismissal, salary increments or other benefits of an employee or job applicant, in exchange for sexual favours.”The employer also has a role to play in ensuring that the workplace is not a fertile ground for abuse either by omission or by commission. It can be vicariously liable for the harassment of anyone by its employees or agents at work premises, work-related events or interaction between colleagues even outside work environment. There are cost associated with this problem; hence, there is a business case for organisations to mount a corporate response to this monster. For example, workplace harassment can result in significant costs to companies, including legal costs if there are formal charges of harassment, costs related to employee turnover with an estimated average cost of 16 to 20 percent of an employee’s annual salary, and costs related to lower productivity from increased absences, lower motivation and commitment, and team disruption. Productivity cost of $22,500 is estimated per person working in a team affected by harassment (Willness et al. 2007).There are signs and cues to watch for when dealing with perpetrators. This identification can be life-saving. Perpetrator approaches include “the con,” “the blitz,” and “the surprise.” According to the SANE Education Project (2003), the perpetrator who uses the “con” will approach the victim openly, using effective social skills, offering assistance, and then exhibit a dramatic change in behaviour. The “blitz” is instant, and with this approach, the perpetrator uses direct physical force to overpower the victim. The male perpetrator who adopts this approach generally has poor social skills with women and may even express open aggression toward them. This perpetrator will use gags, blindfolds, binding materials, and in some extreme cases, chemicals, or gases. The perpetrator who uses the “surprise” approach waits to trap the victim by suddenly appearing and surprising her. A lack of sufficient confidence to directly confront the victim is a driver for this behaviour by the perpetrator. It is also important to note that a single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it does not have to be repeated. Therefore, it is critical that all incidents of sexual harassment regardless of the context and personalities involved are reported to line managers.Consent is crucial in determining whether a behaviour is a sexual assault; lack of objection to inappropriate behavior is not consent. That someone is not saying “no” does not mean he or she is saying “yes.”

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