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Unlearning the culture of sexual harassment

African writers and readers gather across generations to discuss the deeper questions that shape our understanding of, and responses to, sexual harassment.



On a cloudy Friday afternoon in Kampala, writers and readers from around the continent have gathered at the Uganda Museum to talk about sexual harassment. The conversation is happening at Writivism, an annual literary festival now in its fourth year. It might seem an unusual choice of conversation topic for a literary festival, but, as Panashe Chigumadzi points out in her opening comments, there is ‘nothing exceptional about arts spaces’ when it comes to these painful truths.

Writivism, like other festivals, has in the past been the site of stories of sexual harassment among festival participants. It was important to the organisers to create spaces where everybody felt safe, explains Rebecca Rwakabukoza, which led them to include this conversation in the 2016 programme. ‘Let’s talk about it’, calls the session title, and in that spirit Tiffany Mugo opens with a simple question to the floor: What is meant by ‘sexual harassment’?

For a group drawn together by the love of words and a fondness for expression, I am surprised by the long silence that follows. Are we actually lost for words? Or afraid to say the wrong thing? I suppose that is what happens when we start talking about things that we do not talk about enough, especially things that tend to be ‘shadowy’, as Yewande Omotoso puts it, often ‘shrouded in the appearance of “nice” gestures’.

‘Broader culture grooms young and older women to think that people are entitled to their pleasantness.’  – Panashe Chigumadzi

When niceness is part of the problem


Niceness can be a problem – niceness as a shroud, and niceness as an expectation – and both of those functions meet at the heart of sexual harassment. ‘I was doing a talk at a school,’ Panashe recalls, ‘and a man said – all the ladies in the room, I’m not going to talk to you until you smile.’ The problem at the heart of sexual harassment, she continues, is the broader culture that defines the function of a woman in society, encouraging a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and how we behave. So women are expected to behave in a certain way in order for men to control themselves, and to smile and bear it when men cross the line – because ‘broader culture grooms young and older women to think that people are entitled to their pleasantness’.

‘Fighting Fire with Fire’ by Sarah Maple

‘Fighting Fire with Fire’ by Sarah Maple


I have to suppress my church hands in the interests of taking notes, but I can feel the nods vibrate around the room. Katlego Kai Kol-Kes then swings us the other way. ‘Sexual harassment applies to all bodies,’ she says, ‘so let’s talk about how its trappings are used against men too.’ Men, she points out, can also be subjected to sexual harassment, but this is usually dismissed or even celebrated. ‘Male privilege assumes that men are irresistible to women and relies on women to validate that, so women become the custodians of patriarchy,’ she concludes. The idea of women being custodians of patriarchy feels uncomfortable in the self-destructiveness it implies. But also, it hints at a significant power. If women are the custodians of patriarchy, does this mean we can change it any time we want?

Chuma Nwokolo thinks so. ‘Women should have the courage to speak out against sexual harassment – if we call out every instance of sexual harassment, we’ll rapidly change the culture,’ he declares. Yvonne Waigo has pointed out that women in creative industries talk a lot about sexual harassment but mostly to each other, because ‘the element of fear is significant’. This fear, Chuma suggests, makes women enablers – ‘the culture of silence feeds into patriarchy. Silence works for patriarchy. It works for oppression’.

‘I struggle with it with my own sons – how do you undo male privilege? It is deeply damaging to the psyche.’ – Sitawa Namwalie

The cost of breaking the silence

True, but at the same time, the cost of breaking the silence is heavy on women. Several people from Uganda, Kenya and South Africa describe the insults to injury that women go through when they break the silence. The loaded questions from police – What were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Were you a virgin? – the isolation from those who are more concerned with appearances than compassion, the career damage, threats of further violence, the complete upheaval of lives. ‘Those are the kinds of costs we deal with, women’s lives are ruined,’ Panashe says. ‘It’s not surprising if your mother will say “don’t talk” because she has seen the consequences of this – women are always calculating and negotiating what it means to say no. We know what happens when we speak out in a patriarchal society. We are penalised.’

Words We Never Said by Salaam Muhammad

Words We Never Said by Salaam Muhammad

‘So, do women want support from men? And if so, what kind of support?’ asks Joel Ntwatwa. ‘I want you to take responsibility,’ responds Panashe. ‘You should be offended when a woman is raped because it’s your problem too… Men need to talk to each other, and to themselves. Rape doesn’t happen “out there”; it’s very close to home.’ And men are not exempt, Kat Kai Kol-Kes reminds us again, describing recent incidents she witnessed of men being sexually harassed, all of which were laughed off. ‘Maybe men don’t understand the idea that a man also needs to consent – the way our society is, the way that masculinity is, sexual advances are supposed to be seen as a positive. How do we teach men about consent?’

The questions keep coming, reminding us how much unlearning there is to be done. ‘At what point does an act become harassment?’ asks Oduor Jagero. ‘Are there well-defined lines?’ As I think back on all the different forms of sexual harassment we have explored in this short conversation, it becomes clear to me that what we need even more than detailed definitions and regulations is personal principles of empathy. Or as Tricia Twasiima puts it simply: ‘Don’t get into someone’s personal space until you’re sure that they’re comfortable with it.’

‘Don’t get into someone’s personal space until you’re sure that they’re comfortable with it.’ – Tricia Twasiima

The nurturing of personal awareness

The challenge, then, begins with nurturing deeper personal awareness. Sitawa Namwalie draws us back to the underlying mindsets that enable sexual harassment. ‘What is our responsibility as parents in teaching our children to understand and resist sexual harassment?’ she asks. ‘We need to think about what patriarchy actually looks like, and if we make a new system, what does that look like? How would it be upheld? I struggle with it with my own sons – how do you undo male privilege? It is deeply damaging to the psyche. We are walking around creating damaged people and we need to be aware of what that means.’

After two hours of lively discussion, there are still more questions than answers, but there are some moments of personal clarity. Some of them make me uneasy – like when a man remarks that, after learning that consent cannot be assumed just because it was given in the past, he finally understands the concept of marital rape. But even these uncomfortable moments are a reminder of how much we need these kinds of conversations.

A young girl raises her hand to ask why people don’t go to sex workers instead of raping. We find gentle words to explain that rape is not just about sex but about power and consent, or lack thereof. It’s a more difficult concept to grasp, but she listens carefully and nods in understanding, as she grows into the shadow of these painful truths.





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