The African Union is acknowledged as a supranational institution that once boasted a woman chair (Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma) and at present has several women in senior roles. Furthermore, the continental organisation has made attempts to influence gender equality in its member states — even against preferences or proclivity for patriarchal attitudes.
In 2008 the AU adopted the African Union Gender Policy which aspires or intends to establish a coherent vision and makes commitments to “guide the process of gender mainstreaming and women empowerment to influence policies, procedures and practices which will accelerate achievement of gender equality, gender justice, non-discrimination and fundamental rights in Africa”. The policy has encouraged member states “to set up apparatus and mechanisms to further gender equality and the empowerment of women”.
Despite these strides, for many young women seeking employment with or working for the most prestigious organisation on the continent is not safe. This was confirmed by an internal inquiry at the AU Commission, which highlights that sexual harassment is prevalent at the organisation. The motivation behind the inquiry came about as a result of an anonymous letter sent to the AU Commission office in early 2018.
Thus, in May 2018 AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki instituted and gave a directive to a High-Level Committee to investigate the allegations of harassment against women at the commission. According to the report, most victims are short-term staff, youth volunteers and interns looking for jobs. Further, it adds that those responsible “position themselves as ‘gate-keepers’ and ‘king-makers’ ”.
It should be noted that prior to this report being initiated there have been widespread reports of “sex for jobs” at the AU for decades. It could be argued that the issue was immensely under-reported by the AU Commission — however, the true extent and gravity of the problem was completely known. And one of the reasons why victims did not report is because there is no sexual harassment policy in the commission, and consequently “no dedicated, effective redress and protection mechanism available to victims or whistle-blowers”.
The report commissioned by Faki specifically states that “it is important to note from the evidence presented to the High-Level Committee, both male and female superiors are reported to harass and bully their subordinates”. The committee expanded its mandate beyond sexual harassment into claims of “of abuse of authority, bribery, bullying, corruption and corrupt practices, fraud, discrimination, intimidation, misconduct, retaliation, victimisation. It also addressed issues of impunity, whistle-blowing and due process”.
According to the preliminary report of the committee, many women in the organisation faced some form of harassment and the lack of a policy and reporting mechanism made it hard to find recourse.
It will be recalled that in May 2018, before the publication of the report, women employees established a #MeToo movement to challenge the “professional apartheid” they claim they had endured for so long at the AU. This was damaging for an organisation that is at the forefront of championing women’s rights in a continent with sovereign states still rooted in patriarchal traditions.
The report has been given significant media attention recently and many observers were in disbelief; questioning how it could be possible for an organisation that has been in existence for 17 years (transformed from the OAU in 2001) not to have a comprehensive sexual harassment prevention policy.
Therefore; it is vital that Faki’s solutions for a policy and reporting mechanisms should be formulated by women, not men. The AU is a men’s club and there ought to be major shifts in male perceptions. That can be achieved only if women lead the transformation process. A male-dominated AU Commission will not be able to tackle this pressing issue.
An inclusive organisation begins by ensuring that women, as victims, are creators of the process towards transformation. It is imperative that a continental organisation which has a continental impact ensures women champion the establishment of a network and community of victims and survivors to guide the creation of a policy.
Several African countries have universities that have set up gender departments or units dedicated to the study of gender studies. In addition, many African governments have set up national gender policies. Thus, there should be inter-dialogue discussions between universities, civil society organisations, NGOs and governments to set up apparatus and mechanisms which focus on the type of policy that should be developed for the continental organisation and how it ought to be implemented. In addition, there ought to be cross-examination of how the policy is carried out and how employees the organisation perceive both the policy and its implementation.
Sexual harassment is a global challenge. Sexual harassment is also prevalent across the world including intergovernmental organisations such as the European Union. And this report shows the magnitude of the problem. Sexual harassment is so entrenched in all African countries and it is worthwhile that the AU leads by example in getting it right, because its member states take inspiration from it. The acknowledgment by the AU Commission is a good step in the right direction; what should follow is transparency in publicly addressing the issue.
Undoubtedly there are diverse accounts of victimisation of different natures across the continent, but all share similar characteristics. The AU Commission is based in Adidas Ababa this is the place to start. Some scholars would dismiss and question the viability of a comprehensive cross-continental policy. I think if Addis gets it right first, it would not be such a challenge because instances of sexual harassment share similar traits.
In response to the findings, the report states that it will establish “a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that protects the victims and takes the strongest punitive measures against any perpetrator”. But how can the organisation ensure that perpetrators are called to account if they are not identified? The report did not name any of the alleged perpetrators and there is no doubt I didn’t expect names to be listed in the report. But perpetrators must be publicly identified and shamed.
The arguments that make a case against a continental-wide African policy for the eradication this problem are misguided. If we begin by working on a universal definition of sexual harassment we can set definitional parameters of what the inherent characteristics of the phenomenon are.
Perceptions may vary, but with a dialogue about what sexual harassment is and what it is not, we will take a step in the right direction in tackling the problem. We do not necessarily have to have a legal definition, but we can formulate an interdisciplinary definition (as in genocide) of what constitutes sexual harassment. Countries can then formulate context-sensitive mechanisms.
In order for the AU to reaffirm its commitments to gender equality and women empowerment, the continental organisation needs to have a comprehensive sexual harassment-assault policy, formulated by a diverse community of women experts.
The AU Commission should give room for women to conduct a thorough, systematic collection of relevant gender- and age-disaggregated cases of assault at the AU Commission and formulate a prevention mechanism.
Across Africa, women are playing an important role in socio-economic growth and this should be an imperative for the AU to change. DM