What is alleged to have happened to Margaret Davies, former Company Secretary and Legal Adviser of Rokel Commercial Bank, is not unusual. You can hear the same story on every college campus, in formal and informal workspaces, and in any place where privilege and predatory behaviour leads men to harass women sexually with impunity.
Yet, sadly, our society does not seem to take sexual harassment cases seriously. As a result, the voices of victims and survivors of sexual harassment have been primarily silenced, undermined, and underrepresented.
Sexual harassment often opens the door to other forms of criminal behaviour, such as sexual assault and rape, and can even lead to the loss of life. Therefore, Margaret’s story needs to be highlighted. Her case is a unique example. Margaret, a woman in a place of privilege and power, is alleged to have become a victim of sexual harassment, institutional bullying, and retaliation.
Women in more vulnerable positions than hers are daily victims of what Margaret is alleged to have faced and have dared not to speak up because they know the possible personal and financial cost of seeking justice. Margaret’s case ticks all the boxes of how society responds when a woman reports sexual harassment or sexual violence. People will start from a posture of not believing the victim, question her motives for reporting, accuse her of wanting to bring down a respected personality, blame her for taking too long to report, shame her, retaliate against her, and try to make her disappear.
But Margaret’s alleged ordeal of being sexually harassed by her boss for over five years is not only about sexual harassment. It is also about the dominance of patriarchal views and attitudes in institutions in Sierra Leone and how they affect the response to claims of workplace harassment and discrimination against women. Margaret was hoping for redress at the end of an administrative investigation into her complaint of sexual harassment, especially when an external body (the Bank of Sierra Leone) substantiated her allegations. But what no one told her was that the most severe punishment possible at the end of this process, which is termination, would be directed at her instead of her alleged perpetrator.
It is unsettling that Rokel Commercial Bank and likely many other institutions in Sierra Leone have no standard operating procedures on workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. There are no reporting mechanisms, no focal persons, and no guidelines for reporting sexual harassment without retaliation.
Not only is sexual harassment a pervasive violation of women’s human rights and a violation of the principle of equality and non-discrimination, but it also erodes women’s inherent right to dignity in the most invasive manner. Also, the fact that it is so pervasive in professional settings is a manifestation of societal perceptions of women as inferior to men. Vis a vis, ‘who are you to reject my advances? If I want you, I must get you.’ Ultimately, workplace sexual harassment is about power, control, and subordination.
The inherent power that supervisors and employers exercise over their subordinates and employees reflects a power balance skewed in favor of the employer/supervisor, thus creating a perpetual risk of abuse of power when left unchecked. Moreover, the absence of clearly defined policies on how to investigate workplace sexual harassment and how decisions should be arrived at creates a greater risk of higher occurrence of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
Sexual harassment is a massive obstacle to women’s workplace safety, progress, and development. Margaret hopes that her perpetrator would be held accountable under the existing laws and that those in high places would not pervert the course of justice. It is also her hope that her story would help to unmute the voices of other victims of sexual harassment; that her case will lead to reforms regarding workplace harassment and discrimination, not only at Rokel Commercial Bank but in all workplace settings, both formal and informal so that others do not face the same ordeal.
I am proud to stand by Margaret and many other victims who have faced sexual harassment in their quest for justice.