As members of civil society we strongly condemn the ‘findings’ of the Equal Education appointed panel of inquiry into sexual harassment, and stand by those whose voices and statements were dismissed by the panel because they asked for protection, and who have been dealt a great injustice as a result.
Rather than taking the opportunity to think deeply about how to craft a victim-centred approach to investigating sexual harassment and intimidation, the panel has hidden behind unconvincing legal and procedural arguments to dismiss all submissions because they were made anonymously. It considered the needs of powerful men over the submissions of 19 women who came forward to meet with lawyers and share their stories, some of whom agreed to be questioned via their lawyers, but chose not to disclose their names to the panel for fear of reprisal and retaliation.
We strongly condemn this.
To ‘clear’ someone from wrongdoing and to call their version of events ‘plausible’ without considering any of the evidence submitted from victims is utterly inappropriate.
We are aware that sexual harassment and sexual abuse is widespread across all parts of South African society, including civil society, and we have seen how women who speak out about their experiences consistently face discrimination, abuse and threats on their well-being.
We believe that until this changes, being able to submit complaints anonymously is vital for ensuring the safety of victims.
It is clear that this panel was never concerned with running a victim-centred process.
Their lengthy report merely underscores how little they wish to empathise with those who said they were sexually harassed and abused. The language used in the report illustrates this; at one point Judge Kathleen Satchwell describes her feelings of ‘disgust’ for women who submit confidential testimony and choose not to expose their identity.
From the 19 submissions they did not consider, as well as ‘Jane’s’ account shared in the Mail and Guardian, it is obvious that there are many people who want to speak. Failing to consider this while ‘clearing’ Isaacs and Achmat of wrongdoing is wrong, and affirms the long held reputation of these men as powerful and therefore unaccountable.
We do not think that an inquiry like this can make any legitimate findings unless the survivors’ experiences have been considered as evidence.
We note that the only panellist with expertise in gender justice and women’s rights, Professor Manjoo, has distanced herself from this report and its findings, stating that “ I find myself unable to associate myself with the findings…. this report reads like a judgement and makes findings which include exonerating individuals — despite us not hearing the victims (by their choice), not discussing fully the 19 statements received (which we agreed was not evidence — but which we cannot pretend does not include substance worthy of our attention), and also not having tested the authenticity of documents produced, especially by Isaacs and Achmat….”.
We call for Equal Education to make a public statement acknowledging the shortcomings of the ‘findings’, distancing itself from the report and committing to a properly victim-centred approach to set a precedent for adequately and sensitively dealing with sexual harassment.