Despite several laws prohibiting sexual harassment in Nigeria, many victims are forced to quit their dream jobs while others suffer depression as a result of unsolicited sexual advances from colleagues. FAITH ADEOYE reports.
If you want to keep your job and excel in your career, you need to do as I say,” Janet Abegunde’s boss said to her one fateful day. Miss Abegunde, a 24-year-old accountant who had just gotten her first job in one of the new generation banks, said she fell into depression after her boss sexually harassed her.
Just like every fresh Nigerian graduate, Abegunde desired financial stability and this pushed her to search for a job and she finally got one with a bank in Lagos.
A few months into the job, Abegunde said she started getting unnecessary attention from her boss who asked her to share his lunch, reduced her workload and told her to let him know when she needed anything. This made her uncomfortable because her other colleagues were not getting the same favours.
“He then began to request to hold hands, hug, hang out, but I refused and so he changed and started threatening me. He would push me to the wall in his office and caress me. His threats became intense and I fell into depression. I became sad and started to hate a job I love. I couldn’t believe how my boss, a man who ought to protect and teach me, was chasing after me,” she said.
For 27-year-old Dolapo (surname withheld), she had to quit her job due to frustrations from being chased around by men in her place of work.
“The men in that organisation made numerous attempts to have physical contact with me. They would hold my hands, whisper into my ears, hold me around the waist. I was really frustrated. I wondered what I was doing that made me a target of harassment.
“I couldn’t take it anymore and I knew I had to quit because my mental health was at stake.”
Asides Abegunde and Dolapo, 315 persons out of the 493 persons surveyed by a non-profit organisation working to respond to and prevent sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria, Stand To End Rape (STER), in 2021 said they experienced sexual harassment at the workplace but the fear of losing their jobs and social stigma are some of the reasons sexually harrassed women have refused to file formal complaints in their organisations or bring this prevalent issue to the attention of appropriate authorities.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes sexual harassment as a sex-based behaviour that is unwelcome and offensive to its recipient.
According to the organisation, workplace sexual harassment comes in two forms; hostile work environment and quid pro quo. A hostile work environment is when “the conduct creates conditions that are intimidating or humiliating for the victim” while quid pro quo “is a type of sexual harassment when a job benefit is made conditional on the victim acceding to demands to engage in some form of sexual behaviour.”
‘One in two women have suffered verbal or physical sexual harassment in workplace’
According to a 2021 survey by Women in News (WIN), a development programme of the World Association of NewsPublishers (WAN-IFRA), one in two women has suffered sexual harassment in the workplace in African media organisations.
Women in News survey relied on data collated by 584 media professionals in eight African countries via online survey and interviews. 70.2 per cent of respondents were women, 27.4 per cent men and 2.4 per cent non-conforming gender.
The research shows 56 per cent of female participants have experienced verbal sexual harassment at least once, 31 per cent five times or more, and 38 per cent have experienced physical sexual harassment at least once, 12 per cent five times or more.
In the survey by STER and made public in 2021, 80 per cent of the respondents are female while 20 per cent are male.
The respondents confirmed that different types of harassment take place in the workplace, “45 per cent were looked at in a sexual way, 44 per cent received unwanted sexual comments/remarks about their clothing/accessories, 43 per cent had conversations with uncomfortable sexual jokes/stories told, 35 per cent received sexual statements/comments about their bodies, 33 per cent told crude/gross sexual things and asked to talk about sexual matters when they didn’t want to, 27 per cent received non-stop invitations to go out, get dinner, have drinks or have sex even after declining.”
About 77 per cent of respondents stated that the abuse happened in the office/primary place of work with 91 per cent of perpetrators being male. 69 per cent who faced workplace sexual harassment experienced anxiety, 60 per cent experienced depression and 34 per cent experienced post-traumatic stress.
Abegunde explained that the physical harassment she faced with her boss left her with trauma even though she no longer works there.
“I find it very difficult to relate with my boss and colleagues at my new place of work, remembering those moments sends shivers down my spine,” she said.
Laws against workplace harassment in Nigeria
The Nigerian Labour Act has no provisions criminalising sexual harassment or any kind of abuse in the workplace but the Labour Standards Bill submitted in the National Assembly in 2008 had provision on sexual harassment. The bill has yet to be passed.
However, the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011 prohibits harassment, including intimidating, hostile or offensive learning or working environment and provides that “any person who sexually harasses another is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years.”
Also, 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 matters relating to any dispute arising from discrimination or sexual harassment at the workplace.
The National Industrial Court (NIC) amended its civil procedure rules to include provisions on workplace sexual harassment.
Order 14(1) of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria Civil Procedure Rules 2017 provides that where a claimant alleges sexual harassment in the workplace, it should be indicated if the sexual harassment is; physical conduct of a sexual nature, a verbal form of sexual harassment, a non-verbal form of sexual harassment which includes unwelcome gestures, indecent exposures, and unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures and objects; and quid pro quo harassment.
In spite of these laws, a recent survey by HEIR Women Development revealed that 51 per cent of women who work in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, have been subjected to one form of sexually based violence or the other in their various places of work and about 91 per cent of cases faced by women are perpetrated by their bosses and superiors.
Findings from the survey revealed that there is low organisational support for women returning to work after childbirth, 41 per cent of the women said in the survey.
More disturbing findings from the report is the revelation analysed from respondents that members of staff from their various organisations are not concerned about developing measures to protect women from sexual and gender-based violence.
A lawyer, Evelyn Adepoju, explained that it is impossible to know the number of workplace sexual harassment cases that have been taken to court because most victims don’t take legal actions against perpetrators.
“Sexual harassment itself is a crime in Nigeria. It is the duty of organisations to provide laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, although there should be a national law prohibiting it. Anybody can sue relying on the provisions by the National Industrial Court which handles anything pertaining to work/employment and labour,” Adepoju said.
Workplace sexual harassment can affect victims psychologically –Psychologist
A psychologist, Dr Idris Shodeinde, explained that sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, may affect its victims in diverse forms.
“There are lots of ways in which workplace sexual harassment can affect victims, whether it is verbal, non-verbal, physical, or power play. This can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and even post-traumatic stress disorder. The victims may end up quitting their jobs because they believe that they can do nothing about being harassed in the workplace.
“Even after quitting their jobs, some don’t recover fully. As a psychologist, the therapeutic method we use to help victims recover is by giving them the necessary support they need, helping them to think and see the problem in an adaptive way,” Dr Shodeinde said.
What victims should do
As part of efforts to check the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment, the Vice-Chairperson, International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Plateau State chapter, Felicia Emereuwa, urged victims to defend themselves by trying to get evidence against the perpetrator.
“This is the era of social media and victims have the opportunity to get evidence in so many ways. If you have your phone, try to get the conversations and also try to get photographs.
“In court, if you don’t have evidence to back up whatever claim you make, it is always difficult to prosecute. So, for you to be able to convince anyone that something has happened, you have to get evidence and the best form of evidence in law is documentary, that is one evidence that cannot be denied,” Emereuwa said.
She described prosecuting perpetrators as the first of the steps to end sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Let us shun the cause of silence. Most people keep quiet because they are afraid of losing their jobs and that is why most perpetrators go free.
“Because nobody has really dealt with them, it keeps happening. If victims speak up, sexual harassment in workplaces, if not stopped, will be reduced to the minimum.
“Organisations should condemn such acts in their offices and encourage workers to speak out if such things happen. They should also encourage litigation against people who perpetrate this act that will serve as a warning to others who might want to do it,” Emereuwa added.
This article was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) and through the support of the Ford Foundation.