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Access to a woman's body is not a male birthright

By Omogolo Taunyane | 2017-02-16 11:07:01.0

About a week ago, the University of the Witwatersrand announced it had dismissed a law professor and registered him on the sexual offences registry 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 pep 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 their bodies.

The Wits professor 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" such as a colleague or a friend's husband.

The incessant violation of women's dignity by powerful men imposing themselves is due to a belief that access to women's bodies is a male birthright.

Just as many women would 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 with which we address the dangers of male socialisation that has affected women's experiences as they hope not to become yet another statistic.

The swift action taken by Wits University has brought me to an intersection - the first being whether this is the first step in empowering women to speak out and seeing their rights moving away from the periphery, the second being an acknowledgement that much more is required to pull the lid on sexual harassment. Gaining a clear perspective on the matter remains a challenge though, as research and various studies have shown.

According to South Africa's current Code of Good Practice, "sexual harassment may include physical conduct, verbal conduct and nonverbal 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 productivity of women employees.

Is it unreasonable to expect employers to communicate company policy and engage proactively with both men and women so that a zero-tolerance approach can be taken against such matters? Although the prevalence isn't definitive, we all know there are far too many women (particularly young women) whose productivity in the workplace is compromised and they end up giving in due to constantly getting raw deals.

Global women's advocacy and research organisation Catalyst revealed that sexual harassment in the workplace is responsible for "increased absenteeism, low employee engagement and low job turnover from victims", and this barely scratches the surface in acknowledging the effect of the 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 The Wits professor is one of many men who have shown how male perversion towers overs women regardless of their facial expression, body language or dress code.


Taunyane produces The Midday Report with Stephen Grootes on Radio 702 and Cape Talk.