Are we losing the war against sexual harassment and abuse?

In early October, the American fourth estate reported that a prominent film producer, Harvey Weinstein, was accused of sexual assault and rape by a number of actresses. Harvey Weinstein was fired from his own company and his membership from prominent organisation revoked. American and British Police are reviewing complaints of sexual assault, dating back to the 1980s.

It is encouraging to know that this powerful man has lost his empire because of his arrogance and thinking he could get away with sexual assault. It is also encouraging to know that many of the victims in America and Britain may get justice, no matter when they were sexually harassed. Powerful celebrities in America and Britain can easily be indicted because institutions that administer justice work, but what about Uganda?

Sexual harassment is bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favors, which is illegal. In Uganda there are laws against sexual harassment; one just has to refer to the Employment (Sexual Harassment) Regulations, 2012.

Sexual Abuse is the undesired sexual behavior by one person upon another, and this covers an adult engaging in sexual intercourse with a child (in Uganda they call it defilement). The Children Act Amendment 2016 has clauses which are supposed to protect children. Despite these existing legal frameworks, why does it appear that there is no justice for victims of sexual harassment and abuse?

There have been many reports of sexual harassment at the workplace, such as corporations, the music industry and the civil service. Many young women have been asked to sleep with their employers if they want to move up the social and economic ladder.

Those who are desperate, comply. Those who refuse to comply are jobless. There have been reports of lecturers failing students because they refused to engage in sex with them. Many victims have followed the law by reporting to the police or human resource managers, but it has been reported that the latter have refused to follow regulations and have accused the former of lying or blaming them for sexual harassment without investigating.

These inactions simply promote impunity of these sexual predators, which can lead to mob justice.  With regard to sexual abuse of minors, one has to acknowledge that many sexual abusers have been punished, most of whom are not from the “corporate world.” But unfortunately, it has been reported that many sexual abusers, poor or rich, have bought their freedom by buying off judges and police.

Ugandans have been told many times that human rights are enshrined in the law and everyone is equal under the law. But someone forgot to mention that in many occasions the law does not apply to rich or powerful individuals. What this means is sexual predators will get punished because they are poor, not for the sexual crimes they committed.

If you are a Ugandan woman, or girl, born into a corporate class or into a political, your chances of being protected against sexual harassment is better than someone from the lower class. No one is there to represent these poor women and girls, so they suffer.

Many of these poor women desperate for the employment at home end up going to the Middle East to do menial jobs only to be sexually exploited by their employers, and the Government of Uganda seems not to have done much help such women in such a predicament. It is useless to have laws in place if they cannot protect vulnerable people and only promote impunity. Who do these poor women go to if institutions can’t help them?

The writer is a social scientist

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