Vera was working for an NGO when a supervisor made sexual advances while the two were in his office. She remembers worrying she would not be strong enough to push him away.
“He asked me to stand up and said ‘Kiss me’. I said no, then I tried to get up. He pulled me to him and tried to lift up my blouse,“ Vera says. “I remember pulling my blouse down and I remember physical strength from him,” she says.
Years later, sitting at a desk at her own small, private clinic, Vera, now in her 30s, says her boss’s behavior shocked her at the time. “I got real mad and I just left the office. When I went home I was so mad I didn’t even want to come back to work. I sat down and I said this thing is exploitation,” Vera says.
Nevertheless, she didn’t report the supervisor. She had already been harassed by two other male colleagues. “It happened in a way there was nobody to report to,” Vera says.
Sexual harassment in the workplace in Liberia is so common most women don’t bother reporting it according to the many working women FrontPage Africa interviewed for this story. Although it violates Liberian laws very few cases are ever brought for prosecution. But sexual harassment has a devastating impact on the women who are victims, making their working lives a living hell.
The victims’ names in this story have been changed because they are afraid of reprisals.
Kumba, a senior level executive at a media company in downtown Monrovia, says she has been harassed many times in her career. Because of her current high level position she says, men of all levels, including ministers, routinely expect her to have sex with them.
Clients have routinely asked Kumba to have sex with them in order to seal advertising deals. She says she has learned to tell clients in clear terms that she is not interested. “I don’t want you to put me on your menu, I want you to look at the proposal that is in front of you to view and deal with it,” she says.
Kumba believes qualification for the job should be the most important bargaining chip. “It’s always like what you get is going to be based on what you’re going to be delivering and I was like, ‘No, I’m not on the menu so how you’re going to do that?” she said.
Amazingly not all the harassment has been by men. Last year Kumba received sexually explicit text messages from two people she later discovered were female employees. Kumba says sexual harassment is so ingrained as a way to attack women in the workplace even disgruntled women use the tactic.
Kumba let the women know she knew what they had done but did not dismiss them. She says she preferred to have them stay on and hopefully learn a lesson from that.
But not every woman is able to take Kumba’s tough position. Many women FrontPage spoke with had to endure the harassment at great personal suffering.Vera says after she warned the man who harassed her but had to continued working with the organization. As soon as she could get the finances together she left to set up her own clinic.
In Liberia there are no laws prohibiting sexual harassment but there is currently a draft Ministry of Labor-sponsored Decent Work Bill before the national legislature that would outlaw harassment at work. In many countries, including the United States and most of Europe, harassment is immediate grounds for termination. The first sex harassment case in the US was brought in 1974 by a woman who said a manager at the bank where she worked demanded sexual favors in exchange for a promotion. Since then lawmakers and business owners have gone to great lengths to stamp harassment out, believing harassment prevents women being as productive as they could be. Harassment is rarely tolerated in American workplaces.
The Liberian legislature is considering the bill as a way to comply with standards of the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. The ILO defines sex harassment as a prohibited form of sex discrimination.
A highly publicized sexual harassment case two years ago put the issue at the center of public debate. Mrs. Ruth Yeaher, an employee of the General Auditing Commission, alleged that her boss, the former Auditor General John Morlu, made sexual advances in text messages and phone calls throughout the course of the three years they worked together.
She claimed her indefinite suspension by the Auditor General was due to her refusal to give in to his romantic requests.
Yeaher’s case was thrown out of court because of a lack of evidence. She was later slammed with a $1.5 million defamation lawsuit by Morlu, but the trial of the case was never concluded.
The Yeaher case scared many women who have been harassed from reporting it, according to Counselor Deweh Gray, a commissioner in the Law Reform Commission, a body established by the Accra peace accords in 2003 to promote good governance. “A lot of times because of the stigma associated with it people tend to shy away from it. Some might decide to live with it in silence,” Gray says. “People still don’t feel protected enough to want to start to open a Pandora’s Box.”
Gray believes the passage of the Decent Work Bill might encourage more women to come forward. “Once it comes out, and the provisions are there, people have to test the system,” she says. “People who feel violated can come forth and test the system to see if the system works.”
But women like Kumba say the bill will do little to help them. They say it will take a long time for people’s attitudes to change. Until then they just have to endure harassment. She believes the best defense is total rejection. “I think if more women said no, I don’t care what you’re offering me. I’m not going to compromise my integrity to say the least, then maybe they will realize that it is not working,” she says.