‘We need a National Policy’: Revising Public Consults on Sexual Harassment in Zimbabwe.

The joint portfolio committees on Public Service, Labour, and Social Welfare and Women Affairs, Gender, Community and Enterprises Development held public consultations on sexual harassment and the law in all the ten provinces from 31 May to 4 June 2021. The purpose of these consultations was to create safe spaces for the public to speak on sexual harassment. Fostering environments where conversations about sexual harassment are had is an important step to making people understand its serious nature. This is because many remain ignorant to the fact that this in fact is a form of sexual violence.

THE BROAD DEFINITION OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Sexual harassment is generally associated with unwanted sexual advances, be it verbal or physical. It also includes requests for sexual favors, verbal teasing, or behavior that creates an intimidating or uncomfortable environment for the victim. Section 8(h) of the Labour Act [Chapter28:01] narrowly defines sexual harassment as engaging in unwelcome sexually determined behavior towards an employee, whether verbal or otherwise, such as making physical contact or advances, sexually colored remarks or displaying pornographic material in the workplace. Until recently, sexual harassment has been boxed as a labor law matter that can be rectified by countries on a case-by-case basis without the involvement of legislative bodies or courts. But sexual harassment like child marriage or genital mutilation is a form of sexual gender-based violence and its insidious nature has been aggravated by the lack of national policy that leaves most complainants without recourse.

SOME OF THE CONTRIBUTIONS MADE AT THE PUBLIC CONSULTATIONS

It is women who are scandalized and persecuted by society whenever allegations of sexual harassment surface. This is prioritized over the seriousness of the allegation which in turn shields the perpetrator from punishment. As a result, it is rare that the perpetrators get in trouble for it. Because of this, many perpetrators still occupy public office. Therefore, the attendants at the public consultations called for the Sexual Harassment Bill to include a clause which bars perpetrators of sexual harassment in political parties from ever occupying public office. Not only will this be a step to wipe out all the abusers from public office, but it will also protect women who work there.

There was also a call for stiff penalties for perpetrators of sexual harassment such as arrests, prosecution and incarceration. In the rare cases where perpetrators are penalized, they are only liable to pay a fine. For instance, a Chinoyi magistrate recently fined a male high school teacher $15 000.00 for repeatedly sending his married boss sexually explicit text messages despite several warnings to stop. It was argued that the male high school teacher had violated section 88 of the Posts and Telecommunications Act (Chapter 12.05) which pertains to ‘use of abusive language.’

There is also a need for a clear and broader definition of sexual harassment and clear punitive measures for perpetrators of both light and grave offences. Currently, the law on sexual harassment is underdeveloped.  There are provisions in the Constitution and the Labor Act that can be interpreted broadly to include the eradication of prohibitive practices against equality and non-discrimination, including sexual harassment.

RELEVANT LAW

For instance, section 24 of the Constitution states that:

‘the State and all institutions and agencies of government at every level must adopt reasonable policies and measures, within the limits of the resources available to them, to provide everyone with an opportunity to work in a freely chosen activity, in order to secure a decent living for themselves and their families.’

Section 80 (1) further provides that: 

‘Every woman has full and equal dignity of the person as with men and this includes equal opportunities in political, economic and social activities.’

Section 58 (h) of the Labor Act (28:01) states that:

“…An employee or any other person, commits an unfair labor practice if, by act or omission, he:

h)      ‘engages in unwelcome sexually-determined behavior towards any employee, whether verbal or otherwise, such as making physical contact or advances, sexually colored remarks, or displaying pornographic materials in the workplace.’

It is clear that there is a need for an all-inclusive and stand-alone sexual harassment Act that deals with cases of harassment that take place in both private and public spaces including at the workplace, schools, tertiary institutions, in politics, in queues, public transport, vending sites etc. This is because the provisions above are most likely to apply to cases of sexual harassment that take place at the workplace.

In most cases, women do not report cases of sexual harassment because of the attitudes of indifference displayed by society. They fear being turned away by police officers at police stations after being ridiculed for reporting ‘trivial issues.’ Therefore, there is a need for the establishment of units that specifically deal with sexual harassment cases only at all police stations countywide. It is also important that the officers are capacitated and enabled to exercise high levels of confidentiality when dealing with victims of sexual harassment.

Other contributions made at the consultations included:

  • The need to educate women about the issue and mainstreaming sexual harassment in peri-rural and rural areas countrywide,
  • The offices must also be established in rural areas to enable victims to report cases,
  • The need to concentrate on the needs of persons with disabilities (PWDs) and to also educate the officers in sign language and braille,
  • The provision of free medical, legal and psychological support to survivors of abuse to enable their re-integration into society without fear of intimidation of discrimination.

Hopefully, these contributions will be taken into consideration when finalizing the Sexual Harassment Bill. This will help significantly to curb the vague definition of the nature and acts of sexual harassment as it is understood and applied.  Moreover, sexual harassment policies must be tailored to apply to both public and private spaces. The urgency with which parliament has dealt with gender issues is a huge matter of concern and begs the question, will we see the enactment of a sexual harassment act in the next decade ?

Written by Vimbai Mukaro

Edited by Tinatswe Mhaka