Sexual harassment scandal at the African Union

Published 29th November 2018

The treatment of women in society remains a necessary topic of discussion more so after last week’s disturbing report about the prevalence of bias against women, and sexual harassment at the African Union Commission,(AUC) the AU’s secretariat. The AU and its Commission, institutions that were designed to foster development and progress in Africa, are hardly leading by example when it comes to equality and fairness as women are still being treated like second class citizens unworthy of the respect enjoyed by their male peers.

In May, unnamed sources leaked an internal memorandum to news outlets prompting the AUC Chair, Moussa Faki Mahamat to launch an inquiry, led by an appointed High Level Committee. The outcome of this inquiry was made public last week.

One of the confidential documents leaked, was a memorandum addressed to the AUC Chair stating that ,“we, female employees of the AU Commission, are totally appalled by the entrenchment of professional apartheid against female employees in the commission.” It was endorsed by 37 women. It appears that women have been denied promotions, discouraged and prevented from taking up leadership roles, whilst the perpetrators of such discrimination go unchecked.

The problem appears to be at its worst within the AU Peace and Security division. According to another memorandum dated 14 February, the Peace and Security division is “too male-heavy in the upper layers”. The head of the division, Commissioner Smaïl Chergui, (an Algerian diplomat elected in 2013) stands accused of nepotism, gender bias, and abuse of office including interfering in the selection process. Speaking anonymously, senior AU officials told the Mail and Guardian newspaper that, “Chergui has got rid of senior women. He has hounded them out.”

Another official stated that, “there has been a systematic exit of the highest calibre of women from the Commission…” Chergui denied the allegations when they surfaced in May.

To make matters worse, women are also being subjected to sexual harassment. The AU’s inquiry revealed that younger women, in particular, interns, volunteers and short-term contract holders have been offered jobs or further opportunities to stay within the AU in exchange for sexual favours. Many of these incidents go unreported for fear of reprisal and also because the AU Commission has, by its own admission, no sexual harassment policy in which complaints could be dealt with. Therefore, there exists no platform or vehicle for redress or protection for the complainants.

Vested with the responsibility to promote peace, security, and equality, across Africa, it is inconceivable that so many years after its founding, and with all that has been said about zero-tolerance for sexual and gender-based violence, a regional organisation that wields so much influence, would not have an in-house policy to deal with sexual harassment.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation state that 1 in 3 women in the world experiences physical and/or sexual violence or harassment in her lifetime. Not only is it a human rights violation but it is also a genuine public health problem, and more has to be done to punish perpetrators, prevent abuses and to promote and protect the rights of women. Organizations like the AU should be at the forefront of the fight for gender equality.

AUC Chair Mahamat, has rightly promised to resolve the situation and has reiterated his zero-tolerance policy to gender discrimination but there is much work to be done to ensure that the AU does more than pay mere lip service to its 2009 Gender Policy which includes a commitment to gender equality.

Recently, the AU’s host nation, Ethiopia, has undertaken key initiatives that will hopefully encourage and inspire change in other African countries on issues of gender. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made headlines with his proactive approach to affirming women as leaders including, the appointment of modern Ethiopia’s first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde. Although the position is largely ceremonial, in the male dominated, patriarchal society, plagued by high levels of violence and discrimination against women, it is deeply significant and timely.

Ethiopia also now boasts its first female chief justice, Meaza Ashenafi who was appointed on 1 November.In addition, a cabinet reshuffle has changed the face of Ethiopian politics, with equal representation of women and men for the first time. Women have been appointed to hold powerful portfolios like ministry of defence and ministry of peace.

These changes come a few years after a 2013 Ethiopian government report stated that as much as 50-60 percent of Ethiopian women have experienced domestic violence attributing this to the “low level of status given to women in society coupled with the dominant position of men.”

Change is afoot in Ethiopia, presenting a salutary lesson to the AU and other traditionally patriarchal institutions – a lesson which it would do well to learn. The world has just marked International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25 November and the commencement of 16 Days of activism against gender-based violence, the AU needs to show commitment, direction and take principled action to eliminate discrimination. Anything less, would be an abdication of its duty and a failure to adhere to its own tenets.

**This article appeared in the Star Newspaper on 29 November 2018

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