As the 16 Days of activism against Gender Based Violence (GBV) gets underway, abuse in the workplace has been highlighted as a growing challenge that negatively affects labour productivity and contributes to anxiety and mental distress among victims.

Despite the great strides made to prevent and respond to the pervasive GBV and sexual harassment that is deeply entrenched in Botswana society particularly in schools, the workplace and online, there is still a lot more to be done to address GBV in workplaces.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines sexual harassment as sex-based behaviour that is unwelcome and offensive. Sexual harassment negatively affects the working environment, undermines gender equality at work, and also encourages unfair practices in employment and affects the dignity of victims and the general well-being of workers.

If ignored, the ILO warns, it leads to psychological problems such as anxiety and stress for victims, and results in high costs for companies through loss of productivity, absenteeism, low worker morale and poor staff turnover.

The Chats Bua Le Nna Foundation, which was established earlier this year in memory of slain lawyer Chatapiwa Keakantse who was shot dead by her advocate ex-boyfriend who worked for the same organisation last year, held a discussion session on workplace abuse and harassment.

This was an effort to address the growing culture of workplace abuse and sexual harassment, a culture that has moved from homes and permeated the corporate and labour space.

Warona George called for more stringent policies and regulations that protect women in the workplace and fair labour practices, highlighting that in Botswana many cases of sexual harassment are often swept under the carpet and the perpetrators, usually men, are often protected while victims are victimised.

She said that the consequences that organisations may potentially face due to workplace abuse include a decline in performance leading to decreased engagement and productivity, reputational risk and financial loss.

George is a youth development advocate with background in Sociology, Criminology and Public Policy, with focus on policy implementation and evaluation.

She said it is important to promote equal gender rights for all, and also reconstruct gender norms that make it easier to abuse women. "Workplaces should be safe places and both genders should be allowed to enjoy their equal rights," she said.

Another speaker, Nonofo Dube-Jesse, said that women should be empowered to occupy spaces of impact, leadership and authority in workplaces, without eroding their dignity and also be assertive enough to know that in the workplace, it is their skills and talent and contribution to the organisation that matters and not their sexuality or gender.

She noted that in workplaces, there is a widespread culture of sexism, and women are often intellectually undermined by virtue of their gender and this can open the pathway to sexual assault and harassment.

Jesse explained that some women are sexually harassed without even noticing it because the habits have become entrenched in social culture.

"Small things like sexualised compliments, subtle sexual advances and compliments that are leering also include sexual harassment. “In many cases, it is mostly women who are violated and they are expected to treat the abuse and harassment as a "compliment" because some women have adopted a deeply entrenched culture of being abused and perceive it as a cultural norm.

“Some women also give in to this out of fear particularly in cases where these men hold positions of authority, to find all means to justify their behaviour."

Jesse also said that this culture is entrenched in sexism and gender inequality, because it is generally convenient to abuse women as they are perceived as the "weaker sex."

She added that although there is no provision for sexual harassment in legislature, save for the one for the public sector, it is incumbent upon management especially in the private sector, to put in place policies that would prevent sexual misconduct in the workplace and procedures for when they are violated.