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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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Zero tolerance for sexual harassment and gender-based violence

31 August 2021 at 10:01 am

As Women’s Month draws to a close, CER reflects on the role that gender-based violence (GBV) plays in preventing gender justice in South Africa and globally, the burden it places on women who are already disproportionately affected by environmental and climate injustice, and the threat it poses to women activists seeking leadership roles.

We renew our commitment to standing up to a culture of gendered abuse and to standing with victims of sexual harassment and GBV. We remain committed to a zero tolerance approach to any abuse of power, discrimination or silencing within and outside of our organisation.

The month of August, in South Africa, marks what should be a celebration of the courage of the 20 000 women who took to the streets in protest against apartheid laws in 1956. Instead, it has become a time to mourn the loss of women to femicide and the murder of future leaders such as students Uyinene Mretwanya and Nosicelo Mtebeni.

In South Africa, between 25% and 40% of women have experienced sexual or physical gender-based violence in their lifetime, and almost 50% of women have experienced emotional or economic abuse at the hands of their intimate partners.

The pervasiveness of GBV impacts directly on women activists. It limits their ability to move and speak freely, to occupy spaces safely, and to realise the potential of their activism. It also constrains their ability to take up leadership roles.

At CER we acknowledge the prevalence of GBV in South Africa and our responsibility to challenge the culture of gendered abuse of power and discrimination which permeates our society.

In 2018, we embarked on a lengthy process to create a comprehensive and stringent sexual harassment policy for our organisation. This policy, created in collaboration and consultation with all our staff, was adopted in 2019.

The policy makes provision for the creation and maintenance of a working environment that is productive, fair, inclusive, and safe, and where an atmosphere of mutual respect, dignity and equality is maintained, free from any form of discrimination and abusive behaviour. The policy also provides clear and detailed guidelines to ensure the conduct of staff, board members and service providers is kind and respectful.

All new staff and board members are required to sign the policy. At the time we also shared the policy widely with partners and service providers with whom our staff interact.

Now, 18 months after its adoption, we are embarking on a review of the policy in order to assess its efficacy, and update it if necessary. This reflects our commitment as an environmental public interest organisation to bringing an intersectional lens to the issue of GBV and sexual harassment in South Africa and to acknowledging the deep-rooted patriarchy in our country which enables this abuse.

We remain steadfast in our commitment to gender justice and women’s leadership, which for us includes a victim-centred, zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and GBV.