ON a calm working day, an excited and jovial Lisa Moyo (28) cuddled Jason Ndhlovu (39), before starting work.
A week later, Ndhlovu, a father of three, hung his intemperate hand around Moyo’s waist and massaged her back.

Moyo, however, quickly reported the matter to the human resources department. A tribunal was set up and after the hearing, Ndhlovu was charged with sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct. Previous misdemeanours and other work-related convictions led to a stern final warning.

Today he is a cautious man: “I regret that gesture, and today I am scared of committing mistakes at work because I am working with my mind on the final warning. In other instances, I imagine the number of men who are sexually harassed at work by women, but do not report their grievances.”

The issue of violence and harassment in the workplace is common. The harassment manifests in many forms although some gestures and actions towards workmates are overlooked, but constitute harassment.

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Women also sexually harass men by the way they dress and through vulgar comments passed to male subordinates.

Violence and harassment in the world of work can happen everywhere — online, in the physical workspace, at the place where workers rest, eat or attend to their health and sanitation needs as well as at social gatherings.

“Some hugs that people do in the workplace constitute harassment. Be careful of those practices,” said Mandas Marikanda, Zimbabwe Women’s Microfinance Bank (ZWMB) chief executive officer at a meeting on violence and harassment in the world of work.

Employers have stressed issues of violence and harassment at the workplace as no-go areas and anyone who emboldens his conscience to cross the line will be exposing themselves to disciplinary action.

“My wife is not even aware that I was given a final warning at work. I have not reported Moyo to the human resources department because I never thought that she was probably harassing me. I think women are overly protected in the workplaces,” Ndhlovu said.

For ages, the level of interaction at work between men and women has been maintained and developed through codes of practice and knowledge sharing.

General workplace rules stipulate that codes of practice and the law are meant to harmonise human behaviour by taking out the idea of what individuals think is normal behaviour at work, since unchecked behaviour is likely to result in abuse of the vulnerable and the thriving of those with predatory sexual behaviours.

Last June, at the International Labour Conference, members voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new convention and recommendation to end violence and harassment in the workplace. Convention 190 (C190), which is supplemented by Recommendation 206 of June last year, is the first international standard that aims to put an end to violence and harassment in the world of work, recognising everyone’s rights are protected despite their contractual status.

Zimbabwe’s Constitution provides a strong legal framework to promote gender equality, with many clauses covering equal representation of men and women in public office and decision-making positions, non-discrimination and gender parity.

Furthermore, Zimbabwe is a signatory to various regional and international protocols, including the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

“Unfortunately, the many reports on gender-based violence in both public and private spaces are an indication that signing and committing to those legal instruments supposed to protect women have not yet translated into reality.

“We live under cultural, economic and political structures that continue to exploit and de-value women and their contributions,” says Naomy Lintini, a technical advisor with the International Labour Organisation, Harare office. Available data and stories coming up daily continue to prove that gender-based violence in the world of work is pervasive and persistent.

Through C190, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) noticed that the treaty represents an extraordinary opportunity for unions to move their fight against gender-based violence forward.

“We were excited when the convention was adopted because here we want to popularise it within our structures through support and collaboration with women and youth in labour,” noted ZCTU secretary-general Japhet Moyo.

“We intend to work with the government on this convention because the Constitution obliges government to ratify and domesticate it, and as part of our advocacy, we will remind government of its obligations.”

Mavis Mangove, a labour market analyst and counsellor, urged workmates to remain professional by avoiding comments and actions that put their jobs at risk.

She acknowledged that while many people wanted to breathe life in relations and interactions at the workplace, hugs and other adult behaviours needed to be checked.

“A normal hug is one without a sexualised approach and minimum duration. Once one crosses that line of moderacy, it becomes easy for the one they are hugging to raise concerns in the workplace,” she said.

“At the same time, both men and women should be able to express themselves at work by maintaining dress codes that dignify their stature and still build professional relations with others. In terms of dress, should disagreement arise, companies can end up with uniforms in the workplace to avoid such pitfalls.”

To Zimbabwe’s employers and employees, C190 provides momentum to fight violence and harassment, and empower each other in the world of work by ensuring local implementation and compliance. Unions have an important role to play to make sure the convention becomes part of national laws by building alliances with other stakeholders and women’s rights groups to bridge the gap between the labour rights and women’s rights movements.