By Madi Jorbateh
The time has come for Gambian, in fact African women and girls, to begin to expose sexual harassment meted out to them by male perpetrators in our homes, offices and communities and across society. The ongoing Harvey Weinstein affair in the US is a global menace that must be confronted. The only reason why men and boys sexually harass women and girls is because men and boys have power over their female counterparts. The reason men and boys have power is because of the patriarchal system which is rooted in feudalism and capitalism. For that matter men and boys tend to have more education, better access to opportunities and resources and therefore men and boys control social, economic and political power in almost all societies of the world.
While institutions and the system of accountability are stronger in America and many other regions of the world, this is not the case in The Gambia and Africa where those in power can abuse without ever being held to account. Harvey Weinstein is a very rich and powerful businessman yet he has been exposed and investigated. The same had happened to such powerful leaders, politicians, businessmen like Bill Clinton, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Bill Cosby among many. Yet in Africa, hardly would one hear a president, politician or businessman or imam being accused of sexual harassment much less investigated and held to account even though sexual harassment is highly prevalent in our society.
The reason for this is because of the highly entrenched patriarchal system and weak institutions and limited culture of accountability in The Gambia and Africa. The entire socio-cultural beliefs and practices are geared towards disempowering women and girls and subjecting them to male dominance. Such practices like polygamy, FGM, wife inheritance, early and forced marriages are all essentially anti-women practices in favour of men. These practices are however strongly justified through series of narratives and ideologies backed by religion. Both men and women are educated and socialised with these notions to believe and accept as the natural order of things.
As a result of these male-friendly narratives and ideologies, women and girls are taught to exhibit certain attitudes, behaviours and remain at certain positions and perform certain actions in order to add value to themselves. These include that women and girls must not be vocal, know how to cook, serve men and to decorate their bodies in order to demonstrate their womanhood and beauty. Patriarchy holds that for a woman to be classified as good and cultured she must accept the dominance of men, which includes the abuse and misuse to which men will subject them.
Consequently, men and boys are rewarded for having multiple girlfriends, mistresses and concubines regardless of whether the man is married or not or a leader or businessman. A woman who decides to be independent, vocal and principled is shunned as difficult, unworthy and uncultured. It is therefore this narrative which has given licence to men to abuse women and girls in all spheres of our society with impunity. Even when a woman is raped, she is the one who is generally blamed for her manner of dress or being at the wrong place at the wrong time, therefore she asked to be raped.
Therefore, the need to create a new society based on equality, justice and freedom cannot happen so long as patriarchy remains in place. For that matter, women and girls must become vocal and speak out to expose perpetrators.
Just like in the US, there is sexual harassment taking place in homes, work places and neighborhoods in The Gambia and perpetrated by fathers, uncles, brothers, male presidents, ministers, permanent secretaries, managing directors, managers, imams, bishops, pastors, CEOs, professors, alkalolu, chiefs and men in general everyday. Because these men control power as heads of institutions, leaders and acquire wealth, positions and resources, many women are forced to succumb to their wild desires. Thus women and girls do not report this harassment because of culture and religion.
Many women are forced to have sex with their male bosses, leaders or superiors just to get a job or get a promotion or go for travels among other benefits. There are many women in our ministries, public enterprises, hotels, GSM companies, tertiary and vocational training institutes, NGOs, banks and even in car parks and markets who receive sexual advances from their male colleagues, to accept or get punished. Many dignified women have resigned just to protect themselves from sexual abuse by their male bosses in our public institutions and private sector companies.
The time has come to break this oppressive and exploitative culture and expose perpetrators and abuse. For that matter, The Gambia Government must take up the issue of sexual harassment more seriously than now. The Women’s Bureau needs to be further empowered to put in place mechanisms in work places and across society to enable reporting and documentation and prosecution of sexual harassment. NGOs and private companies must also put in place mechanisms to expose, report and investigate sexual harassment.
We need to ensure that the Women’s Act as well as the Domestic Violence Act and Sexual Offences Act are fully enforced across The Gambia. We need President Barrow to address this issue in a special statement. So long as sexual harassment continue to exist in workplaces, homes and communities, the Gambia shall remain an unequal, unjust and oppressive society. The New Gambia we envisage must ensure that we make The Gambia a better society where men and women live in freedom, respect and dignity.
The greater responsibility however remains with women and girls. They must report any sexual harassment that men and boys subject them to. There are many gestures, words, remarks and actions that men and boys use on our women and girls which are in fact acts of sexual harassment. Women and girls must not allow to be used as objects and tools for the satisfaction of men and boys. Gambia women and girls, Stand up! Speak up!
Madi Jobarteh is the deputy executive director at The Association of Non-Governmental Organisations.