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Workplace gender policy key to combating sexual harassment

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Participants And Panelists At The National Conference Organized By Oxfam And The Institute Of Directors Ghana Iod
Participants and panelists at the National Conference organized by OXFAM and the Institute of Directors, Ghana (IoD)

…revolutionary efforts underway, experts unite to tackle sexual harassment and gender-based violence 

Advocates with expertise in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) have come together to address the critical need for strong workplace gender policies focused on eliminating sexual harassment. This collective commitment comes as a response to the pervasive yet often underreported nature of workplace harassment, emphasizing the urgent need for organizations to prioritize comprehensive gender policies to cultivate safe and inclusive work environments.

They were speaking during the recently held national conference at the Labadi Beach Hotel organized by OXFAM and the Institute of Directors, Ghana (IoD-GH) on the topic ‘The Draft Model; Gender Workplace Policy’ as part of the agenda to address Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in the workplace. The resounding call for action emphasizes the critical role of comprehensive policies in fostering safe working environments and stands as a united front against the global pandemic of sexual harassment.

Keynote Speaker: Strategic direction and harmony in corporate leadership for long-term profitable enterprises

In a keynote address, the President of the Institute of Directors and Chairman of the Council, Angela Carmen Appiah, emphasized purposeful action by directors, highlighting the ecosystemic nature of enterprises and emphasizing the need for harmony for long-term profitability.

“It must be of critical importance, the idea being that we live in an ecosystem of different players or actors and we need a certain harmony or balance for survival and for growth, so now if the dynamics are not right, it doesn’t matter how well one arm performs; you will find out that it will always fall short because another arm is not developing. This being a critical and important thing to us as directors means that as directors, we must not just know or be aware; we must be delibrate and intentional in what we do.

Not just to know but to also prevent or salvage, so directors have a responsibility of providing strategic directions. Providing a strategic direction means using information or data so you are not just identifying risks but managing them,” she revealed.

Mrs. Appiah further stated that responsible directors are required to establish suitable steps to combat sexual harassment and ensure that rules are followed. 

“You need a competent director to be mindful of some of these so that they can prescribe, as we are setting policies to address the needs of society. As directors, we don’t want just to know; we want to know how, and this is why we have these conversations so we can elicit specific responses. Its like a phenomenon we are studying, so you elicit responses so that you can put in appropriate interventions to curtail, manage, address, modify, and review whatever we want to do. Once it becomes a policy, we also ensure that we are monitoring and tracking its implementation so that it doesn’t just sit in a book.”

Panel Discussions

The Executive Director of Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF), Melody Darkey, has emphasized the significance of implementing a gender policy at work to combat sexual harassment and gender-based violence.

“Having a workplace gender policy, particularly in regards to policy that addresses issues of sexual and gender based violence, is important because, as we said, the issue is quite pervasive, but it’s underreported, and so if left unchecked, it creates an environment that is toxic, a culture that doesn’t facilitate safe working environment, particularly for women and other excluded groups.”

According to her, such workplace incidents reduce productivity and emotionally harm the victims.

“Some of these things, as I said, sexual and gender based violence, for instance, in the workplace, if not checked, can create a situation where victims and survivors are affected emotionally and psychologically, and some of them feel embarrassment, shame, and guilt, and they develop sort of anxiety disorders as well. 

For the organization, as we said, it can affect your productivity. If you have an environment where people are not getting along because of issues of sexual and gender based violence, work will not progress well, and its also about reputation for your organization.”

Mrs. Darkey noted that all of these factors matter when it comes to viewing a business or institution as a good corporate citizen or as a socially responsible institution, and it is critical that we have these policies in place. 

Ghana’s Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651) defines “sexual harassment” as “any unwelcome, offensive, or importunate sexual advances or requests made by an employer or superior officer or a co-worker to a worker, whether the worker is a man or woman.”

Lead Executive and Principal Consultant, Kojo Amissah, also called for serious consequences for violations while expressing concern that policies alone are insufficient without serious consequences for violators. He stated emphatically, “Until we start penalizing people for these, I think all of us will be joking. Let’s have policies in organisations that will actually penalize people.”

Mr. Amissah also disclosed that a lack of sufficient education on workplace regulations and the repercussions of sexual harassment encourages its persistence.

“To a large extent, it is education that is lacking. As much as I still believe that everybody in an organization knows what sexual harassment is, when you enter and they don’t walk you through the policies they have and the steps for grievance and resolution regarding sexual harassment, you are there and everyone is talking about the culture, and you realize that people are not free in this organization, so when things are happening to you, most of the time they find somebody you can trust and confide in, not the system.”

Also, the Head of Department of Development Policy, School of Public Services and Governance, Dr. Gifty Oforiwaa Gyamera, additionally pointed out the global impact and leadership responsibility in drawing attention to the global pandemic of sexual harassment, as well as the issue’s simultaneous recognition and ignorance.

“Society does not encourage reporting, so it is very important that leadership will also put good structures in place to help the victims. Leadership should also find means to protect the victims and encourage them to report because, in Ghana, reporting means you will never have anyone to support you.

Sexual harassment is a global pandemic, and that is why it has attracted the attention of various international organizations. There have been a lot of international frameworks, and as we are witnessing right now, it’s not only in Ghana, as I said, but globally, so according to recent research that we did in Australia, four out of five women have been sexually harassed,” she added.

Head of Relations for OXFAM, Lydia Doe, who focused on policy implementation and cultural transformation, acknowledged existing legal frameworks while emphasizing the need to move beyond them to achieve successful policy implementation. 

“The legal frameworks are there, but we are talking about policy implementation. I think where we have gaps is in the implementation. We have to move from a legal framework to policy implementations, clear statements, and acceptable and unacceptable policies within the work space. We all agree that we have a framework, but the issue is the practice and culture do not change what you desire to change.”

Leadership and Corporate Governance Expert, Dr. Olu Ajayi emphasizes the necessity of punitive measures for effective progress. “Without punitive measures in place, we can never go far. We will just have the policies, but I also believe that there is also some work HR can do because when we talk about sexual harassment, its not about skills its not about technicalities; its about behaviors, and I believe its high time we started building behavioral assessment into performance management. That will go a very long way.”

Dr. Ajayi suggests that when it comes to strategic planning, the board should prioritize and approve resources for staff training in this area, adding that despite training, there must be some protective mechanisms for those who blow the whistle, and this is an area where we are still struggling.

She described sexual harassment as a global phenomenon, but in Ghanaian culture, it is even more difficult. However, it should be an area that we should keep working to invest in.

Presentation of the policy: Unpacking the anti-sexual harassment policy

In a presentation, the Principal Consultant, BSC Advisory, Bernice Sam, Esq., mentioned that it’s crucial for businesses to have a fair, safe workplace without discrimination, violence, or harassment. “Responsible business practices, including providing and maintaining a workplace free of discrimination, violence and harassment, have become an essential requirement.”

She added that an enterprise’s public image and reputation can be adversely affected by allegations or findings of discrimination, violence, or harassment practices and the reputational cost can be high. However, there are proven benefits to having a good reputation, which include attracting better talent, having more loyal customers, and having higher market value.

Sexual harassment can take the form of physical, verbal, or nonverbal behavior. Physical sexual harassment includes acts of physical aggression, unwanted touching, and excessive closeness. Unwelcome comments and queries regarding a worker’s bodily parts, looks, lifestyle, sexual orientation, and/or rude phone calls constitute verbal sexual harassment. 

Nonverbal sexual harassment, on the other hand, includes activities such as sexually provocative gestures, whistling, and the physical or electronic exhibition or transfer of pornographic items or sexually suggestive messages.

The relevance of this conference lies in its potential to catalyze transformative change in Ghana’s workplaces. By showcasing the global imperative for gender-equitable policies and aligning these principles with the specific challenges and opportunities within the Ghanaian context, the conference will serve as a catalyst for change.

Through collaborative efforts, knowledge sharing, and the endorsement of a model Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy, the conference aspires to drive the adoption of inclusive policies in both public and private organizations. The goal is not merely to convene discussions but to witness tangible outcomes, with at least 12 organizations committing to adopting the policy and signing Memoranda of Understanding at the conclusion of the event.

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