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The new, pretty face of sexual harassment in Kenya

HRPX

“What is there for a man to complain about?” asks Allan Musau, a 32-year-old tour guide when his view on sexual harassment against men is sought.

Allan’s response echoes the thoughts and views of most people. The standard mental image of a sexual harassment victim is a woman and the aggressor is a man who is definitely more powerful and probably older.

The situation on the ground, however, shows a new twist to this traditional scenario: Men are the latest casualties of what has been portrayed as male power play in the past.

These societal assumptions about sexual harassment seem so deeply ingrained that most people in society believe that it is something which happens only to women.

Men have not been raised to see themselves as potential victims and so when it happens to them, it is hard for some men to even recognise it.

Saturday Magazine polled 20 men between the ages of 24 and 39.

Of these, seven reported having been on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances and conduct from women at the work place, ranging from mild sexual innuendo in conversations to outright butt pinching.

PANTS DOWN

Take 29-year-old Mwaniki, for instance. It began as friendliness from his supervisor. She was pleasant, occasionally fishing for compliments.

At this point he saw it as harmless flirting. Then one evening they were in the cubicle together when she began changing for an evening out.

She just dropped her pants and when he looked away she accused him of being frigid.

“At that point I didn’t know what to think. Had I been too friendly and given her the wrong impression? Was it even possible for a man to be sexually preyed on?”

Mwaniki is a hairdresser working in largely female environments where he has had to listen to remarks about his body and male bashing comments and he admits that he is not sure where the line lies.

While in a group this woman was polite but in private she continued harassing him. Even when he gave her negative responses, she did not stop asking him for dates and exposing too much skin and this obviously left him upset and distracted.

Still, he refuses to label it sexual harassment.

“She was just desperate for attention,” he says. “It is a good place to work and I wanted to stay out of her way so I concentrated on my work. I think she became bored eventually,” he says.

Mwaniki is lucky that boredom put his aggressor off.

Malik encountered a more forceful assailant. She was much younger, more powerful because she was his boss’s daughter, and insistent.

When she touched him inappropriately, he swears that had he followed his first instinct, he would have slapped her. “She was the boss’s daughter and I was raised to be nice to women, so I sat it out until she left the company to join university,” he says.

SEDUCTIVE BEHAVIOUR

While the story of a sexually harassed woman two decades ago involved threats, sexual coercion, and bribery from a man in authority, the men we spoke to spoke of incessant and overtly seductive behaviour which was unwanted and inappropriate, coming mostly not from women bosses but from co-workers.

Over-empowerment?

Other than the obvious fact that there are more women today in the work force than there were 10 or 20 years ago, the shift in gender roles seems to be the other culprit.

Psychologist Ezekiel Kobia observes that women seem to have taken empowerment to another level. They have misinterpreted it and this has resulted in over-aggression.

“There has been a role reversal and women are becoming the hunters instead of the hunted. Some of them bring this attitude to the workplace,” he says.

Then there are the female bosses who are not at home with their power and instead prefer to use their femininity to get their male subordinates to do what they want.

Sarah, a 33-year-old executive who has 13 men reporting directly to her, observes that charm can be way more effective than authority. “If a man thinks that I want him, he will go out of his way to get his work done. But of course, there are lines that I will not cross,” she says.

Her femininity is her tool of intimidation. She makes personal compliments, looks them in the eye when talking to them, taking care not to make them feel embarrassed, and she says that they submit without even knowing it.

WHY MEN DON’T TELL

Kenyan law is gender-neutral in regard to sexual harassment. Even then, cases of men lodging sexual harassment complaints are few.

From her years of experience in human resources management, Beatrice Kilonzo, a human resource consultant at Clovers Management and Training Consultants, says that she has not handled any case of a man reporting sexual harassment.

She attributes the growing trend of the female being the harasser at the workplace to the influx of women in powerful positions.

In yesteryears, she says, women used their femininity to woo but today, power seems to be their biggest weapon.

“If the attention is unwanted, the sex of the aggressor doesn’t matter. The effect on the victim is the same. It makes working difficult and it should be reported. People should talk about it,” she says.

For a long time, men have been in a position to oppress and objectify women and when it happens, most people can easily identify it.

For most men, dealing with sexual harassment from a woman is a new territory and according to Dr Agnes Zani, a sociologist from the University of Nairobi, this could explain why most of them do not seem to know how to react to it.

WHEN MEN FINALLY TELL

When a man finally admits to having being a victim of sexual harassment, it is clear that he lacks the support he deserves.

Women are pitied and sympathised with, but not men. The society seems to find it difficult to believe that a man would get offended by sexual advances.

“What is wrong with you? Are you gay? Then enjoy it,” is the response that Kioko got from a female colleague a few weeks ago after he confided that he was unsettled that his boss’s girlfriend was coming on to him.

The woman, who is at least five years older than him, is relentless. When she comes around and the boss is not there, she will ask him to sit with her at lunch.

“I have become the office joke,” he says.

It appears as if a man is damned if he tells and damned if he does not.

This could be why some men who are victims of sexual harassment instead take this as a cue to begin looking for another job.

According to Cyrus, 30, the worst thing about a man being sexually harassed at the office is not knowing the end game.

He says that if one is not interested in the attention that he is receiving from a woman, it can be unsettling.

When it happened to him at his previous job a year and some months back, he thought about reporting it but changed his mind because he worried about the possibility of her turning the tables on him even more than he worried about what people would think.

“If I accused her but she turned around and accused me, I think she is the one that would have been believed,” he observes.

His sentiments are cemented by the fact that when he later admitted to his wife his motivation for leaving what had been an otherwise good job, she was unhappy with him, telling him that he was harassed because he allowed it.

LEGAL REDRESS

According to Kilonzo, our legal system recognises female-to-male harassment and one has the option of taking the legal path.

The maximum penalty for one convicted of sexual harassment is imprisonment for not less than three years, a fine of not less than Sh100,000, or both.

You do not need to be a direct victim of sexual harassment for you to take action; even a witness who is personally affected by such behaviour can seek redress.

-Nation

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