“Imagine you are a 19-year-old South African woman named Akhona Geveza, fresh out of maritime college, the first in your family to reach higher education, the household earner and hope. In 2010 you go to sea as an apprentice navigator on a good ship, Safmarine Kariba, run by a good company, Safmarine. On 23 June your shipmate reports to your captain that you have been raped by the Ukrainian first officer. He summons you and the officer to his cabin the next day at 11am, as if an alleged rape is a regular human resources matter. But you don’t turn up, because you are already dead in the sea.”

– Extract from 90 percent of everything by Rose George

Is it just me or are people really turned away by the mention of sexual harassment? The people who target their work colleagues do not seem to take issue with it as long as we do not have to give “it” a name. That is until someone cries harassment… Then people get angry! The only problem is that it is the wrong kind of angry! We are angry at the victim for speaking up. We are disappointed she tried to air the company’s dirty laundry. “Look at all these HR meetings and procedures we have to dig up!” “Think about our firms’ reputation!” “Why not just let this go quietly?” Even fellow co-workers are disappointed in you. “How dare you make us all look bad!”  “Now the firm will hire less women because of this!” “You probably lead him on!” “You should not have smiled too much or offered to help with that report!”  Maybe you start to believe it too. This was your fault and you have no right to cause so much trouble over it. That is exactly what your harasser wants you to believe. Their very intentions are to manipulate you for their own gain. They expect to get away with it from the very beginning…

I have been staring at this blank page for days now. I have already written and thrown away so many versions of this post because none of them seems genuine. If I don’t feel good about writing it, why should you, the reader feel good about reading it. You see, my idea was to write this from the perspective of an outsider looking in but who am I kidding, I am not an outsider. I am  not part of the fortunate few to have never fallen victim to sexual harassment at work. I used to be saddened by it and I am at times strengthened by the experience. I am often happy to look back and realize I did not let my experience destroy my will to succeed.

When I look back at my experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, I learned a few things :

  1. Never wait to report any unwanted attention. If you have made it clear that you would like to keep the relationship professional on several occasions, do not leave it undocumented. Report it to a supervisor in confidence and ALWAYS in writing.
  2. We assume women will always stand together in solidarity but that is sometimes not the case. This is the hard truth and I hate to admit it. Be prepared for it and hold your head high.
  3. Do not be afraid of being unpopular. It will not last and when the dust settles many will respect you for it. Some sooner and others later.
  4. No amount of money or level of promotion is worth staying silent for. If feels so much better when you are able to overcome adversity and accomplish excellence. It gives you a sense of worth and self confidence
  5. Both men and women can fall victim to sexual harassment. This is why it is important that men and women agree to promote a fair advantage for everyone in the workplace.

After getting over my shock and anger, I decided to get even. I realized there are many other women in male dominated industries that are victims of sexual harassment and more often than not, they pay a high price for it. When I first enrolled in the maritime academy as a cadet, the media was running a story of a female cadet, Akhona Geveza who was  harassed on-board her vessel. She threatened to submit an official report but never did because she was found dead a day later. By the time I was graduating, the investigation on her case was ruled a suicide despite all the evidence of foul play! It is these women I wanted to speak up for. I found strength and I managed to rise above what had happened to me. Not everyone has a courage to find their voice and that is why I have made it a calling to be that voice – tirelessly promoting the participation, empowerment and parity for women in male dominated sectors.

The struggles for women’s rights have been long running. We have made so many breakthroughs in the recent years and will continue to hope for more progress. The United Nations SDGs are an example of that hope. They focus on the vision that so many women continue to fight for. I believe that empowering women is all about giving them a chance to rise up to excellence. I believe it is only through programs that educate, implement and change policies that have long suppressed women’s rights, can we move forward.

This post also apprears on http://smartwomanug.tumblr.com/post/141028014919/it-happened-to-me-too as part of the  #ChooseDignity campaign against sexual harassment at work.