When Kemi* decided she wanted to pursue a career in tech, she had dreams of changing the world. When she got a chance to attend a high-level coding camp, she was delighted that she was starting to realise her dream. What she didn't expect was that her would-be mentor would propostition her and invite her to spend time “privately”.

The UN describes sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. People, particularly women and girls, face sexual harassment in all spaces, from online, to the streets, to their homes, to their places of work. 

According to Stop Street Harassment, over 38% of women have faced unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace while trying to do their jobs. This particular form is referred to as sexual harassement in the workplace and is a day-to-day reality for millions of workers all over the world.

In Nigeria, the numbers are much higher, according to a report by Stand To End Rape (STER), with 64% of women reporting they had been sexually harassed in their workplace.

STER is a non-profit organisation advocating against sexual violence and providing help and resources to survivors. In 2020, STER launched a study to address a significant gap in knowledge of sexually violent experiences in the workplace environment in Nigeria.

With data and research so lacking, the Workplace Sexual Harassment Study consulted with over 450 people working in companies around Nigeria to help understand the scope of the problem.

Ayodeji Osowobi, founding member, Feminist Coalition.
Ayodeji Osowobi, founding member, Feminist Coalition.
Image: Feminist Coalition

Global Citizen spoke with Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, executive director at STER and winner of the 2020 Global Citizen Prize: Nigeria's Hero Award, about the effects of sexual harassement in the workplace, policies that can be implemented to protect vulnerable people, and how Global Citizens everything can help take action against this issue in their daily lives.

What is the state of sexual harassment in the workplace in Nigeria at the moment?

Sexual harassment in Nigeria continues to be a prevalent public health issue and a violation of human rights associated with so many negative consequences, like reduced job satisfaction, poor job performance, and poor mental health as well trauma.

There have been different studies in the Nigerian context, and it shows that sexual harassment is really prevalent in Nigeria. For instance, a study done within the legal sector reported that there is a prevalence rate of 64%, while another study specific to Lagos states, reported a prevalence rate of 74%.

This clearly shows that we have a problem that's not being addressed. There really hasn't been any structural policies to prevent it from happening or systems to respond when they happen.

At STER, we did research on workplace harassment with more than 450 individuals across different sectors in Nigeria. Some 64% of the respondents who have been in formal employment for 12 months had experienced one or more instances of sexual harassment, and they were younger people between ages 18 and 30, female, heterosexual, never been married, and working at large organisations with over 50 employees.

This is the data that we are currently working with and there are so many other cases that go unnoticed or unreported, which means we're not able to get truly accurate data on how prevalent this issue is in Nigeria. But the data we've gotten so far points in that direction.

What more have you learned from research?

The most prevalent forms of sexual harassment includes being ogled, receiving unwanted sexual comments, and remarks about clothing or accessories.

There are also other things like sexual jokes or stories, receiving sexual comments and remarks about bodies, and being asked to do things that are sexual in nature. You know, receiving non-stop invitations to go out, to get dinner, to have drinks, or have sex even after declining.

Our data shows that 91% of those who do this are men who are either peers or senior colleagues. This happens mostly within official settings that are supposed to be formal and safe. And then some people request for sex in exchange for promotions, employment, the list goes on.

What is the impact of sexual harassment in the workplace on survivors?

I can't speak for everyone but I would say that there are two things that are clearly a consequence of workplace sexual harassement on the part of the survivor.

The first is negative job experiences and this is where people have trouble being enthusiastic about work or getting along with co-workers and performing their tasks in general.

There is also the mental impact where people might have panic attacks, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), because they are constantly in that environment of harassment. For some people, this unfortunately leads to the loss of their jobs — they have to resign or are fired for refusing sexual advances.

So we have people continuously losing their jobs because of workplace sexual harassment and this impacts their social status too, because they are losing their source of livelihood.

From our research, 77% of survivors said that they were no longer interested in doing their job or they're not able to be productive at work, while 75% of them said they had depression, anxiety, PTSD, and many other negative outcomes.

Are there policies and practices in Nigeria to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

There is no legislation present in Nigeria that covers workplace sexual harassment.  The Employee Compensation Act of 2010 recognises that mental stress may arise in the workplace and provides that an employer is bound to pay compensation to an employee for mental stress. What it doesn't specify is that it could be mental health stress related to sexual harassment in the workplace.

We don't have specific laws for sexual harassment in the workplace but the criminal law of Lagos state recognises sexual harassment on a very general level as a crime that is liable to three years imprisonment upon conviction.

The Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act of 2015 recognises sexual harassment, which I believe should cover the workplace, but there isn't any specific law or policy that is targeted towards the workplace.

If you look at organisational policies or practises for the respondents, 62% worked at companies that had no sexual harassement policies, and 59% were dissatisfied with how cases were handled by the employer. Then 81% did not receive any form of support at all from their employers.

So while we don't have an overarching policy to address this issue, there are bits and pieces of laws here and there. It is also important that organisations themselves have a safeguarding policy that protects all of their employees, but unfortunately we do not have adequate policies in place.

To be fair, 38% of respondents [in our study] said they had sexual harassment policies in their workplace, but 58% of them were not aware of the particular measures in place.

How can survivors of sexual harassment in the workplace report incidents and get a resolution?

They can report formally to a civil society organisation, the police, or to the human resource department of their organisation. The first point of contact is usually the human resource department or whatever departments are in charge of staff welfare.

If the case is not treated with the seriousness it deserves, they can report to a civil organisation or to the Nigerian Police Force (NPF). The 1999 constitution confers power on the National Industrial Court to take up any issue of sexual harassment in the workplace in Nigeria or any related matters.

Those are the [only] options available, unfortunately. We don't have [a lot of] options but if they report to the existing structure within their organisation like HR or the compliance officer and there is no resolution or action, it's important that they immediately report to the police so that a formal case can be filed in the National Industrial Court.

What are STER's recommendations for companies and Nigerian leaders to tackle this issue?

For organisations and employers, the first step would be to create and enforce anti-sexual harassment policies and responce procedure. The policies and procedures should be clear when it comes to how to report; the measures they will take to investigate; and disciplinary action that will be taken against perpetrators. The policy should also include what is acceptable behaviour within the work environment and what isn't.

Verbal, nonverbal, or physical harassment takes different forms, and this should also cover interactions with non-employees like customers and vendors.

The second step would be, of course, to outline their response procedures. Organisations need to create formal channels that allow employees to report harassment confidentially without any form of backlash or fear of backlash.

The third step is to build awareness and a culture of responsibility. Employers should focus on building a culture that promotes safety within the workplace and also helps employees have better orientation in the form of seminars, trainings, or retreats. It could be newsletters, emails, and posters within the office.

The last thing that's needed is employee support services. It is important that there are mechanisms in place to support survivors. This can be in the form of mental health support, counselling, wellness programmes, referral to local services, and paid time off.

Governments should create policies and laws specific to workplace harassment. Another thing the government can do is ensure that any organisation registering with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) should be mandated to have a sexual harassment policy as one of the requirements.

They should also set up a system for mandatory reporting. Right now, an adult who is aware of child abuse is mandated by law to report such cases. This can be extended to workspaces to create a form of checks and balances.

What can we all do to help prevent sexual harassment in our workplaces and communities?

Individual responsibility is one of the most critical aspects of prevention and response. It's important that people are aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and abuse, stop such behaviours, and not encourage people around them who show such behaviours.

If people work within organisations, they need to be familiar with their policies and procedures that are in place. They also need to treat all co-workers, clients, and vendors with respect and remain professional at all times.

If you see someone getting harassed, you can report it or encourage the survivor to report it if you don’t have the capacity to do anything about it. And we always advocate people keep records because we need records and evidence to prove a case in court.

So you can keep records like the name of the perpetrator, their position within the company, what type of harassment you witnessed or experienced, specific dates and times; these things matter because they really help. Do not engage in any intimidation attempts when people report workplace harassment and hold people accountable too.

What message do you have for Global Citizens about tackling sexual harassment in the workplace?

My message to Global Citizens, like myself, would be to join us in putting pressure on Nigerian leaders to ratify the International Labour Organsiation (ILO) convention so that we can have a policy that protects all humans from sexual harassment.

Also, know that you are responsible for your actions, do not create an environment that is unconducive for others or an environment that takes advantage of other people. If you see something, please say something.

Finally, feel free to reach out to STER, if you want to report sexual harassment or if you'd like us to come train your employees or colleagues on sexual harassment. We're very happy to do that.

*Not their real name. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Global Citizen Asks

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