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The Wits University Case Shows That Much More Is Required To Pull The Lid Open On Workplace Sexual Harassment

The sexual harrassment case at Wits brought back memories of the difficulties women are often condemned to suffer in silence amid injustice and indignity.

16/02/2017 04:58 SAST | Updated 17/02/2017 11:19 SAST
Ihsaan Haffejee / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

About a week ago, the University of Witwatersrand announced it had dismissed law professor, Mtendeweka Mhango after months of investigations into sexual harassment. The ordeal brought back memories of the difficulties women are often condemned to suffer in silence amid injustice and indignity.

It also took me back to my early teenage years, when my mother never missed the opportunity to remind me "not to smile at men" as it would be misunderstood to be an invitation for something more than just a polite gesture. This was the prep talk she insisted on before any public engagements, probably what she thought was a way to protect me from the male gaze.

Now as the Wits University case has shown, keeping a straight face - which can also be likened to the kind of coded language as "don't wear revealing clothes to avoid compromising situations around men" – is yet another illustration of the culpability thrust upon women during violations against our bodies. Professor Mhango shook us to the core because beyond just exposing his abuse of power, he awakened us to the reality that a sexual predator's profile is also one of the unassuming 'good guy' who also happens to be a colleague or a friend's husband.

The incessant rape of women's dignity at the hands of powerful men imposing themselves is what I now recognise as a belief that access to women's bodies is a male birth right. Just as many women know at least one person who has survived rape, there are multitudes of women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace. What concerns me is the hushed tones we address the dangerous male socialisation that has littered women's lived experiences hoping not to become yet another statistic.

The swift action taken by Wits University has brought me to an intersection – the first being that whether this is the first step in empowering women to speak out and seeing women's equality moving away from the periphery; the second being an acknowledgement that much more is required to pull the lid open on sexual harassment. Gaining a clear perspective on the matter remains challenging due to varied findings from research and studies conducted.

There are far too many women whose productivity at work is either compromised or who give in and get the raw end of the deal.

According to South Africa's current Code of Good Practice, "sexual harassment may include physical conduct, verbal conduct and non-verbal conduct" as a point of departure for a complainant. As a young woman who joined formal employment in 2011, I don't recall coming across any company document outlining the avenues I could pursue should the need arise. Surely employers have a responsibility to ensure the wellbeing and high productivity of women employees? Is it unreasonable to expect employers to communicate company policy and engage proactively with both men and women that a zero-tolerance approach will be taken against such matters?

Although the prevalence isn't definitive, we all know that there are far too many women (particularly young women) whose productivity at work is either compromised or who give in and get the raw end of the deal. Global women's advocacy and research organisation, Catalyst, revealed that sexual harassment in the workplace costs employers through "increased absenteeism, lowered employee engagement and job turnover of victims", which barely scratches the surface in acknowledging the effect of trauma suffered.

And as women continue to carry the burden of protecting themselves in silence, I'm reminded of how wrong my mother has been in teaching me not to smile at men. Because Professor Mhango is one of many men who have shown how male perversion towers over women's agency regardless of your facial expression, body language or dress code.

A previous version of this blog post incorrectly stated that the professor has been registered on a sex offenders list. He has not. The error is regretted. - blogs editor