Cover-up and a culture of silence stops sex-for-jobs victims gaining justice
In spite of the disclosures from Hollywood about casting-couch studio boss Harvey Weinstein and others in the spotlight, a culture of shame and silence still ensures most sex victims in Kenya suffer in silence — and that predators are protected from prosecution.
There is a strong signal however that this might be about to change.
For following the international MeToo campaign that encourages victims to spill the beans and name their attackers, there are currently two cases in the Kenyan courts.
They both concern women teachers at a Nairobi secondary school who have alleged their headteacher relentlessly pursued them for sex.
One , who said she was harassed for for more than a year told how she ended up suffering clinical depression as a result, while the other claimed she was beaten up by her colleagues for spurning the head’s unwelcome attentions.
While these cases hit the headlines, thousands more never see the light because the victims are too afraid or embarrassed to speak out.
Woman we spoke to told how the joy of getting hired could overnight turn into a nightmare. Each was too afraid of the possible backlash to allow us to reveal their identities — yet — but they hoped by telling their stories, others will know that they are not alone, and that eventually those who prey on their women workers will face the law.
Three women victims tell their stories:
Lucy, age 22. Intern at a parastatal.
I have been an intern since November 2016 and I am the only woman in the audit department in an office full of men. I cannot wear skirts without comment. My boss is my father’s very good friend; that is how I got the job. We carpool to and from work with my parents because we live in the same area. But that didn’t deter him from making sexual advances. Three weeks after I started working, I even got a call from his wife accusing me of having an affair with him. He calls me late at night, past 11pm, “just checking up on me.”
The other day, he made a lewd remark about how I like “sucking things” because I had changed my water bottle. He sends me Whatsapps with captions like, “because I love you.”
The only thing that keeps me going is knowing my internship ends after six months.
Apondi, aged 29. Lawyer
While on mandatory attachment at Milimani Law Courts in her second year, Apondi was assigned to a magistrate from hell. A headline in the papers that day was about the shortage of condoms. The first thing he told me was, “You students are having so much sex, you caused a shortage,” then he asked my name.
He said, “You don’t look like a Luo, they’re usually short and have big behinds”
The nail in the coffin was when he said if we were to sleep together we would fight for space on the bed because we’re both tall.
I went to the Executive Officer to ask to be reassigned to another magistrate on the same day. She asked who I had been assigned to and her reaction was, “I totally understand”.
It is known among judicial staff and even his colleagues that he is a predator but he still has his job.
I am a lawyer, I spent all this time dissecting laws but all that is on paper really. The magistrate obviously knew that sexual harassment is a criminal offence but that didn’t stop him. I cannot imagine what would happen if a case involving a victim of a sexual offence went before him for justice.
Mwende, age 31. Freelance consultant.
Mwende worked at a ministry for a while and it was going well until a senior official started sending her around, asking her to go to his office all the time and even sit in on confidential meetings.
He bought her lunch every day, sometimes even anonymously. Mwende was afraid of being fired so she kept her distance from him…or tried to.
His office was a fortress; it was soundproof and you had to go through two secretaries to get in. One day, he called her in and she declined. He then called her supervisor and insisted on seeing her. He was the overall boss so her supervisor complied.
When Mwende arrived both secretaries were not there. She said she felt uneasy, but there was a security guard patrolling the floor so she thought she was safe. But when she got in, he closed the door and tried to pin her down. She kicked his groin but he was just too strong. Screaming didn’t help and he almost got away with it, but he got a phone call, and was distracted. Mwende kicked him again and scrambled out to the nearest washroom.
When she reported the assault to HR she was told nothing could be done.
Said Mwende, “They had been paid off. Every authority I tried to tell turned me away. I had to quit that job and he didn’t make it easy. Finding another was so hard because he used all his connections to make sure I was unemployed for a year.“
She went on “The next job I found ended in a similar way. People find me beautiful and it has been my undoing. Now I’m working freelance. I can’t afford to even think of working in an agency or a big company anymore. The fact that no one wanted to help because of the position of my bosses pains me till this day.”
And she added, “Everyone keeps telling me to sue. But these guys’ positions are too high. And this is Kenya. Nothing can touch them.”
Laws on sexual harassment vary depending on the country and the culture.
The United Nations includes sexual harassment as violence against women and encourages the development of penal, civil or other administrative sanctions, as well as preventative approaches.
Kenyan employment law is very clear on what issexual harassment.
Section 6 of the Employment Act, 2007 defines itent as any conduct by an employer or a co-worker where there is a direct or indirect request for sexual activity in return for preferential treatment or if refused a threat of detrimental treatment or loss of future employment.
The Act extends sexual harassment to include suggestive language, showing material of a sexual nature, or any other conduct which is offensive to the employee and has a detrimental effect on their performance at work.
“Employers with over 20 employees are mandated by law to have in place a sexual harassment policy (after extensive consultation with the employees) which will spell out the rights of employees to be protected from sexual harassment, the duties of the employer to prevent such conduct in the first place, the means and procedures for anonymous reporting of such incidences, protection from victimisation and the means of punishment for such offenders,” explained Martin Maitha, an advocate of the high court.
He added that employers who do not have a comprehensive sexual harassment policy face criminal sanctions under the Employment Act and are liable to imprisonment for three months or to a fine of Kshs50,000 or both.
“There are instances in which employees have successfully sued their employers for sexual harassment and obtained damages in the Employment and Labour Relations Court. In one notable case concluded in 2015 the court awarded a victim of sexual harassment Kshs 1,200,000 as general damages.” Maitha said.
HR expert Wanjiru Ndirangu, based in Kenya, noted that sexual harassment happened more often than most people think.
“To ensure thorough investigation of a sexual harassment complaint, the complainant should provide the name, department and position of the person causing the harassment together with a description of the incident, when it happened, where it happened, and any witnesses and other information the complainant believes to be relevant to the case,” she said.
“The HR department has a duty to take necessary measures to ensure that the complainant is protected from retaliation during the period of the investigation. All information about a sexual harassment complaint or investigation is maintained by the HR manager or director in secure files to ensure maximum confidentiality and information should be strictly on a need to know basis, for the relevant people involved.”
However the ugly realty is rather different.
While the law and HR best practices seem to clear, workplace sexual harassment continues unabated, particularly targeting women. They are expected, even outside the workplace, to view unwanted or inappropriate sexual advances as a compliment rather than a dehumanising violation of their rights
Wandia Maina, a counselling psychologist at Intrapersonal Health Services in Nairobi stated sexual harassment was almost always about power.
“Often perpetrated by one who is above another in rank, this dynamic often leaves the victim confused about the way out because there is the implied threat of losing your job if one speaks out.”
She added that one major effect of harassment was loss of self-esteem. “The perpetrator will most times include verbal abuse in form of sexually loaded statements meant to objectify the victim.”
“Consequently, a victim’s ability to perform is also interfered with as their concentration is shifted from professional tasks to avoidance of the sexual predator,” she explained.
Other effects included helplessness, hopelessness and eventually depression.