Perhaps eleven months of the year should be spent in more concentrated, more urgent discussion around turning women’s empowerment into a practical pervasive reality. Perhaps August should be the month when bills that authenticate the empowerment of women are passed into law and methods of enforcing said laws implemented. When this happens the slogan of our mothers ‘you strike a woman you strike a rock’, will live in truth and every Women’s Month, we will have something substantially significant to celebrate.
Women’s empowerment is the subject on many lips in these weeks, particularly because are approaching August. Many women are against Women’s Month. They say it is too much about tea parties, pedicures and playful frivolity when there are real, sober matters that need to be highlighted and resolved; matters such as poverty, genital mutilation, HIV, abortion, rape, pornography, prostitution, discrimination and sexual harassment.
It is an outrageous affront to all women when one of us is forced to endure unremitting harassment, infringements on the sovereignty of her body and the negligence of corporations and judicial institutions in taking the issues seriously. When it comes to the problem of sexual harassment, women, especially on the corporate battlefield, are too frequently advised to ‘let it go’. They are advised not to cause unnecessary trouble. But, surely the trouble that fighting sexual persecution causes is very necessary trouble indeed.
Sexual harassment is used to disempower, humiliate, undermine and demean women in their battle to scale the rock face of the corporate cliff just as rape is used as a tool of war. Sexual harassment impedes women’s empowerment, hinders women’s advancement to corporate power positions, and enforces the fact of the glass ceiling.
The constitution and the law encourage that there is recourse. The reality demonstrates that, too often, there is not. Recourse through the courts is a long, expensive and stressful process and frequently results in nothing more than years of censure and degradation for the woman seeking justice. While the male perpetrator has the backing of teams of corporate lawyers at his disposal and the ‘boys club’ for support, the female victim is on her own. She must foot her own legal bills. She is branded an agitator. She loses her job. The sexual harassment is disregarded as irrelevant. Misogyny triumphs. Where is the empowerment in that? It makes a mockery of the constitution and turns the bill of rights into a record of unproductive rhetoric.
Dineo was a valued, or so she thought, and respected senior employee in the marketing department of a multinational corporation. Her sexual harassment court case lasted for five years and caused her no end of personal trauma and expense. It caused her to lose her job. It tarnished her personal and professional reputation. It turned her, the victim, into the architect of her own demise. As a result of fighting for her rights Dineo was branded ‘trouble’ and was unwelcome in other corporations. Her violator, on the other hand walked freely and swiftly into a string of high powered positions because of the ‘boys club’ which permeates Corporate South Africa and strenuously resists the legislation that was created to defend and ‘empower’ women.
Dineo had a boss whose habit it was to go to a bar for a couple of hours at lunchtime, get himself utterly inebriated, return to the office and spend the remainder of the day making lewd remarks to her, commenting in personal and unwelcome ways about her body, rubbing himself against her in doorways and corridors and generally making her life extremely uncomfortable. He would frequently touch her inappropriately. He constantly exuded the sour stale smell of alcohol. He was nothing short of being fully repellent. Dineo felt mentally and physically violated and thoroughly disgusted. She began to dread going into work.
Having gone through a workshop within The Company on the very subject of sexual harassment and how to deal with it; and having diligently read the wordy manual Dineo felt confident in following the procedure stipulated therein. As instructed in the manual she took the matter to the Human Resources director. The HR director was a woman, which should have been a good thing. Dineo made it clear that she really didn’t want to cause any trouble, but she did want the harassment to stop.
Shortly thereafter, Dineo called her Violating Boss to let him know that she was being admitted to hospital. He insisted that he would visit her in hospital ignoring her protestations that it was really a private and personal matter and that she had her family around her. She thought it neither appropriate nor desirable that he come. In fact, he was beyond being the very last person in the entire stratosphere that she wanted near her.
The Violating Boss ignored her wishes and showed up at the hospital finding Dineo in her private ward. Through the haze of drugs Dineo recognised him and tried to tell him to leave. Through the haze of drugs Dineo was fully aware, but totally powerless when he put his hands under the sheet and touched her. Mercifully, through the haze of drugs she was still able to make sufficient protest to attract the attention of a passing nurse. When the nurse entered the room, The Violating Boss fled.
The first thing Dineo did when she returned to work was to go see Ms H. R. Director fully expecting support and sympathy from one woman to another. She recounted the long list of incidents of harassment and abuse culminating in the happening at the hospital. Incredulously, she was met with a stone wall and advised not to make trouble. Ignoring the facts set before her and the procedure mapped out in The Company manual on sexual harassment, Ms H.R. Director advised Dineo to return quietly to work with The Violating Boss. Dineo must understand, said Ms H.R. Director, that The Violating Boss was more valuable to The Company than her and that she should simply suck up any humiliation she suffered at his hands.
Finding only indifference to her complaint within The Company; Dineo decided to take the matter to the CCMA.
It will come as scant surprise to learn that The Company made Dineo a pariah. They, the ‘boys club’, rallied behind The Violating Boss. Nonetheless, Dineo won her case at the CCMA. The Company ‘boys club’ was determined to defend this violator of women; this rapist-in-waiting; this misogynist. On behalf of The Violating Boss, The Company appealed the CCMA decision at the Labour Court, and went to great lengths to bribe, defame and misrepresent their way into winning.
Where is the ‘empowerment’ in this? To have lies told about one in court; to have to defend one’s choice of dress; to have ones sexuality put under scrutiny, one’s mannerisms interrogated; to have ones integrity called into question is the antithesis of being empowered.
The Company had no interest in the defence or empowerment of this woman who suffered humiliating harassment at the hands of their valued director. What did that have to do with the bottom line? The Court and judicial system totally failed Dineo. They accepted the lies. They allowed her to be further victimised by ignoring the findings of the CCMA, losing evidence, ignoring testimony and so forth. Court officials accepted bribes.
How could these men look at this woman; this injured party and join forces to continue and compound her torment? Did they not, in her, see their own wives, sisters, mothers, daughters? No, because the predatory mentality of this ‘boys club’ was so insidious as to induce mob myopia.
The message to other women within The Company was clear, “We have made an example of this woman and any others among you who even think of not suffering the indignity of daily abuse now know what to expect”.
Some time in the midst of this battle The Violating Boss was dismissed from The Company. The number of sexually harassed women beating a path to the door of Ms H. R. Director was becoming embarrassingly excessive, but that was not the reason. He was dismissed because if word got out, it would disrupt The Company’s argument in court and Dineo would then win the case.
Dineo appealed the Labour Court decision at the High Court and The Company, even though it acceded to the guilt of The Violating Boss by firing him, offered neither to back down nor settle. They continued to fight Dineo. There was more bribery, more chicanery, more defamation and more misrepresentation. They were, as one woman described them, ‘a bunch of swinging dicks on a mission’. Dineo didn’t stand a chance.
So The Violating Boss is quietly dismissed with a substantial payout and he is free to harass another woman on another day, while Dineo is denigrated for standing up, not just for her rights, but for the rights of all women in all workplaces everywhere; even the rights of Ms H R Director who lives under the misguided notion that by being the servant to misogyny she will earn a place at the ‘boys club’ table. She is too foolish to recognise that until the day when she has a dick to swing she will never be anything more than a collaborator; an askari of women’s empowerment.
If Women’s Month is not to be become a deception and women’s empowerment is not to become a charade something very practical and drastic needs to change in corporations, the judiciary and in society. This is one woman’s story, and is not an uncommon one despite the fact that the bill of rights, the law, the ANC manifesto, the freedom charter all pronounce in the most unambiguous of terms on the necessity for empowerment and upholding of women’s rights.
And if the Minister of Women & etc is willing to put her women’s rights money where her empowerment advocating mouth is, perhaps by Women’s Month next year we will have something substantially significant to celebrate.