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Danny Roberts | How best to win the campaign against sexual harassment

Jamaica Gleaner 2020-07-30 12:16:00
File A woman holds a placard as she joins others during a protest against the alleged sexual harassment of women in public buses in Bangalore, India, in 2013.

Like everything else, we continue to focus on sexual harassment from the wrong end, wanting to punish offenders and quickly condemning those who do not echo the narrative we want to hear. We loathe male stereotypes while turning a blind eye to the stereotypical behaviour of females. We feminise gender and carry our own unconscious bias, doing very little to raise a level of awareness and consciousness that not only broaden our perspective but allows us to treat fairly with the issues at hand. We talk a lot, which, of course, is not commensurate with the actions we take, and we fall prey to rituals that have not bend the arc of dignity and respect fully towards human progress.

Having conducted dozens of sexual harassment sensitising training for public and private sector companies over the last 18 months, I am quick to point out to our collaborators that, in fact, the anti-sexual harassment training itself has not yet begun. The several sexual harassment hearings I have been a part of has brought a deeper appreciation of the emotional trauma, the psychological distress, the confusion, self-doubt, fear, low self-esteem and stress-related health issues which come from violating one’s dignity and selfhood. As a victim of male stereotypical behaviour, I too have been guilty of displaying less empathy to a male who was sexually harassed by another male, than I have shown to female victims harassed by males. I made the conscious effort, coming out of one of those sessions, to be equally sensitive to the victims, irrespective of their gender and the gender of the perpetrator. I suppose I will still carry a special place in my heart for female victims of male harassment since my dear mother was physically and emotionally assaulted by the man who sired me and my siblings.

But let me return to my opening paragraph. Perpetrators of sexual harassment must be punished to the full extent of the law, that I am very clear about. Those of us who may, by default, display male chauvinism or our deep-seated cultural bias must not be condemned but must be forgiven if we are genuinely contrite and apologetic. Minister Chuck will certainly be more sensitive to issues of gender going forward because we turned his gaffe into a teachable moment. It does not help the cause if some of us, who have been socialised and conditioned by history and circumstances to an unflattering cultural nuance of gender, are not swayed by an enlightened appeal to a better sense of judgement to join the crusade for a full rediscovery of ourselves. We can now count on Minister Chuck to be an integral part of that campaign.

Which brings me to the other side of the equation. Women have their prejudices, too. Some years ago I had to intervene in a sexual harassment case in a male-dominated industry; the HR ignored the complaint, the male employees were hostile towards the female victim and the female employees were anything but sympathetic, suggesting that the victim may have brought it on herself. It was this experience, complemented by the many sensitisation workshops conducted, which persuaded me to propose to the Joint Select Committee that the time for reporting of sexual harassment should be extended well beyond 12 months. I provided the justification based on the psychological effects and trauma of sexual harassment, but quite frankly, perhaps because of my gender, received little credit for the proposal. Women alone cannot defend women’s issue; in the same way we are seeing that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not only for black people to champion.

After 500 years of repression across many generations, the psychological impact of slavery still remains with us. Rex Nettleford would constantly remind us that the jailer and jailed shared the common fate of being in jail together and, therefore, we cannot deal effectively with sexual harassment until we educate both men and women, indeed, the entire society about human dignity and self-respect; a view recently expressed by cricketing great, Michael Holding.

This brings me to the point, largely overlooked in my presentation to the Joint Select Committee, about the urgency in decolonising our education system. Much of what is codified in our education curricula set the boundaries of civic discourse that mould character and shape our cultural experience. It is an experience that we often see as ‘universal’, ‘exceptional’ and ‘unique’; it is simply part of our culture, as some would suggest, so we must accept it without fail. This is a faulty sense of ourselves, and if we are to adequately and effectively address the issue of sexual harassment, then we have to turn that sense of self on its head. Embedded at the core of the anti-sexual harassment campaign – as it is in the reparations struggle – is an inalienable right to be treated with dignity and respect.

The shadowy reflection of a haunting past will not be put in its proper perspective without re-education. We witnessed the sexualisation of our women and the emasculation of our men over generations, and want to believe its cure is the passing of law with harsh penalties. Jamaican Professor Anthony Bogues, in his introduction to Sylvia Wynter’s The Hills of Hebron, reminded us that “we have to rupture from the very frames in which we think about ourselves as human”.

If sexual harassment is to be understood as a human rights issue, then the case must first begin in the minds and hearts of our people by changing the historical incarnations through a process of decolonisation of our education system to create human rather than man.

Danny Roberts is a senior lecturer and head of the Hugh Shearer Labour Studies Institute, Consortium for Social Development and Research at The University of the West Indies Open Campus. He can be reached at strebord02@gmail.com