The 16 days campaign started on November 25th and this is my third piece on the wider issues around sexual violence and our responsibility to make everyone we know accountable for their actions.
There are just so many words to describe this, but every female (young or old) would have at one point or the other been in a situation in which some random person with octopus like arms, hands and feet decides that he has to be friendly with your body parts and bodily integrity without your permission.
In Nigeria, we face so many struggles for the basics that our expectations from ourselves and others are low. Sexual Harassment is just one of those many types of sexual violence we ignore because it’s just too much bother to fight, but can have serious harm on the mental health and balance of the victims especially young women in the work place, educational establishments and within the family. Yes, “within the family”. I’m talking about that uncle, brother, in-law or cousin who is on some random visit or here for youth service, for whom each time you pass by feels the URGE to touch, grope, leer or even press his rancid body against yours without even considering that you do not want.
Sexual Harassment is done by individuals we least expect it from and engages in breaching our bodily integrity – even with unnecessary verbal comments on how your breasts look perky. Yes, that is a form of sexual violence because it was not consensual or unwarranted. If you are always ogling your colleague at work and commenting on how big her ynash is, it is a form of sexual violence.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of such behaviour without realising its gravity, you are not alone. Let me share my own experience of facing sexual harassment from an institution without even recognising what was happening. I will not name the bank involved for it is no longer in existence. It was one of those that failed several years ago. There had been an unauthorised withdrawal from my domicillary account and I had gone to specifically speak with the branch manager because the response from the floor staff was not acceptable to me.
I felt that my money should not be used for anything else without my permission. I was with a young cousin who was interning in my office. I spent not more than 30 minutes. An explanation was given and apologies made by said branch manager. In the course of the discussion, I innocently admired the art work and said I had an earlier piece by the same artist. He was on the rise at that time and I was looking forward to getting one more piece from him before he became too expensive. The branch manager then said he would send an Officer to the house to see me. I explained that there was no need but that the said officer should call and, once my money was returned, all would be well. Since this was around 2001 or 2002, mobile phones had just come out at the time.
That evening I went out with my husband and got a frantic call from my younger cousin saying there was a man outside my house who had come to see me. He refused to leave and wanted to wait. His appearance (though I did not meet him) was totally inappropriate for the institution he represented. After much prodding from my younger cousin who laughed at him, he confessed why he had been sent. The irony was that it was not necessary, but apparently, this institution had clearly thought that utilising its male staff with “extra services” was a great way to maintain an edge over their competitors. I closed my account the following day. I just could not mentally deal with such drama.
My point is that sometimes, the signals for sexual harassment can be so subtle that you miss them because they are not glaring. The little nudge there, the colleague who leans in too close to your breasts or bottom… Nothing is said, but the message is taken and internalised. For young women in the work place, there is a constant battle against dirty old bosses as well as hormone-driven young men. Negotiating safe personal space can be fraught. Thanks to low self-confidence, many may be reticent to say or do anything that will draw attention to themselves even though they maybe unhappy with the situation.
So, the question is: what can you do?
If you work in an institution which has a sexual harassment policy in place, then speak to your human resources department.
It is important we learn to document and keep evidence of all inappropriate actions that take place. It may seem silly, but taking note of everything and calling people out on their wrong behaviour can alleviate tension in the work space and curb such actions.
For colleagues that witness the sexual harassment of others, do not be silent. Say something. Let your words count. The silence against sexual violence has to stop and we are all accountable for our actions.