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Fear and Pride of African Women Waiting for their #MeToo

Lome (TOGO) - The professional hell for Akouvi (not her real name) lasted five years. The devil was his new head of Financial Risk Management at a bank in Togo. "At first he seemed to want to go out with me as a friend," Akouvi tells me with a certain reticence. "Being my superior, I have always refused". A rejection that cost her dearly. "Once I was five minutes late at a meeting and he humiliated me in front of everyone," continues the banker. "Or he always called me in his office to tell me things that he could easily communicate to me on the phone." For Akouvi, the man overstepped the limit during a few long seconds in the elevator. Frustrated, he locked her in his arms, telling her once more to go out
with him. "At that point I went to the human resources manager without knowing he was another harasser," says the woman. "Even the director general of the bank, a woman, never supported me when I exposed an informal complaint against my boss. I was alone ".

Millions of African women are victims of sexual harassment and abuse every day where they work. Almost all have names, but they prefer not to reveal them. They have faces, but choose not to show them. The fear of being fired is too much. Often victims do not even know they are victims. They do not know their rights. They accept it because that is what "tradition" teaches them. They report cases of violence in a war, but not in the office. Banks, companies, shops, newsrooms, factories
and plantations of agricultural products: all sectors in which such abuses occur regularly. Indeed, the African context appears even more serious than the Western one. A clear example is the cinema.

Hollywood celebrities have succeeded in making their voices heard. At Nollywood, the Nigerian counterpart, these complaints are instead suppressed or punished. As in the case of Rahama Sadou. In 2015, the actress had accused a colleague, Adam Zango, of harassment and abuse
of power. "He did not involve me in a film because I rejected his advances," Sadou wrote on his Instagram profile. The actor immediately recognized his mistake. But because of comments on social media against Sadou, Zango then retracted. He accused the actress of lying and she had to
publicly apologize. The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, also revealed that she was sexually assaulted at age 17. "I had met a well-known Nigerian publisher to help me promote my first book," said Adichie, a member of the #MeToo movement. "He instead touched my
breasts".

In Africa, laws that protect victims of sexual harassment at work are non-existent or very recent. According to the Senegalese penal code, for example, the guilty are punished with "the prison from six months to three years and a fine between 75 and 750 euros". "By now I prefer to always use 'Sir' with any colleague to curb the wrong impulses," said a Senegalese to the popular information site, 'sanslimitesn.com'.
"Almost everyone harrasses, especially the directors, because of this I talk as little as possible with men at work."

I actually witnessed a blatant sexual harassment when I was living in Burkina Faso, the so-called "land of honest people". In the waiting room of the national radio and television broadcaster, RTB, a government official kept annoying a secretary. He made unhappy comments about his dress, hair, glasses, lips. At one point, when she got up to head to an office, the man grabbed her by the arm and slipped her hand across the woman's body. I will never forget her expression, angry and submissive at the same time. The official, on
the other hand, smiled, accompanied by the laughter of the men in the hall. It took a few seconds before the secretary managed to get away.

"Unfortunately these scenes are the order of the day", tells Tanya (another invented name), a journalist friend with one of the most famous international radio and television companies with a branch in Kenya. "I lost count of the comments and advances of mine colleagues. Last year I was even assaulted by car in front of the house ". After a business event, Tanya had accepted with skepticism a move from an insurer who lived near her. "He threw himself on me for two long minutes," she explains to me on the phone from the capital, Nairobi. "As soon as he gave up, I managed to escape from the car and locked myself inside."

As in journalism, among whose principles there is giving voice to the weakest, Ushaidi (in kiswahili means "testimony"), a well-known information technology platform for humanitarian emergencies, has been tainted with such a scourge. Last year, former employee Angela Kabari,
after several days of harassment, denounced the director, Daudi Were. The latter was fired only when the story has started to circulate on Facebook and in the media. "I recorded Were's words when he asked me to have sex with him and another colleague," Kabari explained. "He kept insisting and I found others nine Ushaidi employees who had been sexually harassed by him ".

Since the early 2000s, a study by Kenyatta University said that the highest rates of sexual abuse occur mainly in factories or plantations of tea, coffee and roses. "Colleagues and supervisors do not find it normal to rape women only", the report emphasized, "but also the daughters who live with them on the plantations". Denouncing such crimes to local authorities is often useless. "In Cameroon there is no legal instrument to defend the victims - explains the journalist
Sarah-Jane Fouda -. A woman who goes to the police station to declare a rape would be met with the laughter of the policeman ". South Africa, on the other hand, is one of the most advanced African states in this respect. The Fair Employment Law (No. 55 of 1998) states that: "Any harassment is an unjust form of discrimination". The victim can be rewarded with a year of his salary while the manager would pay a fine of up to 12 thousand euros.

Not like in Mali, where the local press has pointed out the heavy atmosphere especially among schools. It is indeed common for teachers to offer jobs only in exchange for sex. Or that the student receives good marks "offering" her body. Most victims admit they feel sick after being molested. They accuse physical and psychological pains. They often fall into depression. Some, instead, in order not to lose their jobs, accept having a relationship with the harasser. "I am the eldest daughter of the family and my father is dead," a girl told the
press of Ghana in tears. "I have been the fake lover of my director for three years".

Before concluding the interview, Akouvi tells me how she managed to move forward with her career despite the various obstacles. She took the first opportunity to change bank. Ironically: she became a superior of her former director general, the woman who preferred to protect the molester instead of showing solidarity. "While she is employed in a local branch, I work at the international headquarters," says the Togolese banker with a soft smile. "Thanks to the good Lord, after five years of suffering, now I am free ".

Matteo Fraschini Koffi for Corriere7 - 18 ottobre 2018

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