How much does the Me Too hashtag movement resonate with you, asked Helen Rees executive director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute in a health forum this week.
The majority of hands at the 19th Board of Healthcare Funders (BHF) Conference at Sun City went up and a little murmuring followed. Another question followed, can those that the hashtag did not resonate with raise their hands? And only a handful of hands went up.
It was evident that a number of people, mostly medical staff, have been affected by sexual harassment and abuse in their workplace.
The Me Too movement, also known as #MeToo is an international movement against sexual harassment and assault.
The movement spread virally in October last year as the hashtag was used on social media to raise awareness about sexual assaults and harassmen, particularly in the workplace.
It followed soon after public revelation of sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein - an American ex-film producer. This movement has also gained popularity in South Africa as more people started speaking out about harassment in the work place. are coming up with their me to stories. This includes former ANC MP Jennifer Ferguson, who laid a criminal charge against Danny Jordaan for rape.
Rees says, women are angry and dealing with sexual predators daily in their workplace.
“Being gender-blind won’t change the unequal structure of the status quo” she said
She told conference delegates that she was concerned that at this day and age men still acted a certain way towards women.
" If you ask the majority of women, many of them have encountered the winkers in the workplace. Men who general wink at you for no apparent reason. They will also tell you they have encountered men who get intimidated by them and act on it. “I was standing in the queue one day and a man went to skip me, he jumped in and told me if I cross him he will crush me,” said Ress.
Natalie Africa, who is a senior director of Global Health & Private Sector Engagement.at the UN Foundation, said it was unfortunate that women have to work hard and still deal with gender-based issues.
Africa, who was also a speaker at the conference recalled a time when her former employer had sown sexual interest towards her, and when she rejected him he retaliated.
“He made me do reports that no one read... he made me stay late at night with extra work that was not needed. I became so frustrated with the job, I ended up resigning. Fortunately, I had the luxury to resign because I was in that position temporary while I was waiting the position that I wanted. How many women encounter that and they have to stay in that job?” asked Africa.
Viwe Mtwesi, the youngest black female cardiologist in the country, said sometimes the health industry can be cruel towards female co-workers.
“There was a time when I was overwhelmed and thought the industry did not accommodate females...some saw us as sexual objects. But even so, some of my male counterparts were the ones who kept me going,” she said
Rees said if there were more women represented in leadership these problems would be avoided.
To address the gaps of missing women in decision-making, Rees suggests that policies that promote gender equality be implemented, with incentives.
She said it was also important that there was a common understanding of gender...and that gender should not be conflated with women.