Durban — ’Tis the season to be jolly, but sexual predators take full advantage of anyone who drops their guard while making merry.
Experts have warned that as the festive season kicks in and end-of-year parties take off, so too will the number of sexual assault cases.
Legal services firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH) says end-of-year parties can present a “legal minefield” for employers, whether functions are held at the workplace or off-site.
CDH director and management executive Phetheni Nkuna said: “People are winding down, they’re more relaxed and with office parties there’s usually a theme and a specific dress code. People are letting their hair down and so a lot can happen, a lot can be said which might constitute sexual harassment.”
She said the venue, availability of alcohol and transport arrangements all had ramifications for employers.
“People get intoxicated and do things they shouldn’t be doing. Remember that you are still in a professional environment and you still have to work there after the party so it’s important to behave yourself,” Nkuna said.
She warned that employers had an obligation to provide a safe and healthy environment for workers and given that Christmas parties and year-end functions were usually organised by companies, they were still subject to the Code of Good Practice on the Elimination and Prevention of Harassment in the Workplace. According to this code, bosses are responsible for keeping staff safe when on duty or on any work-related trips.
“This can be commuting from the office to the venue where the party is held and where the employer provides transport. A Christmas function will fall within a work-related event, whether on site or off site,” Nkuna said.
Cosatu spokesperson Matthew Parks said sexual harassment occurred across the board and 50% of women were likely to be victim to some form of it. He said most places no longer had end-of-year parties, but harassment was rife throughout the year and cases were filed by its affiliates every day.
Parks said it happened to defence force personnel while they were on base, female police officers encountered sexual harassment on the job and those in the retail sector were also vulnerable.
“There are good laws, but you have to actually enforce them. Many workers are petrified of losing their jobs and choose to suffer in silence because they say in an economy with a 41% unemployment rate, ‘what do I do?’”
Parks said all workplaces had these problems and men were also sexually assaulted by female supervisors or by other men.
Teachers’ union Sadtu sounded a warning, advising matriculants to avoid “pens-down parties” after their final school exams because they could be dangerous and deadly.
Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke said there was a 99.9% chance of sexual harassment happening.
“These so-called pens-down parties are areas where rape happens more often than not. One or two of the girls are going to report they have been raped or assaulted,” he said.
Maluleke said it was tragic that these attacks usually occurred while the world was observing the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence.
“Some will lose their lives because that is what we have observed over the years. When these parties are not held, we don’t lose the lives of the young people, particularly girls.”
Maluleke said where a girl was sexually assaulted and wanted to report it, she was likely to be silenced, intimidated and threatened or hurt. There were multiple ways in which girls were subjected to violence at these functions.
“Let’s just say that as a parent, I would not allow my kid, boy or a girl, to go to these parties. It’s being irresponsible,” he said, adding that the likelihood is they would leave in the early hours and, according to statistics from insurance companies, this was when car accidents happened.
“So if it’s not an assault case at the venue of the party, then an accident is likely to happen when people are drunk and they are driving in the early hours. It has happened before and we need to learn lessons from that.”
He said at schools, teachers were mainly responsible for the rising number of sexual harassment cases where children were the victims, but female teachers were also vulnerable.
Violence also occurred among pupils, especially where they had access to drugs or where outsiders had easy access to schools and could victimise girls.
Maluleke said that while pupils were likely to report these attacks, generally teachers chose to be “highly secretive” about this. He said sexual harassment and gender-based violence often hinged on relationships where the perpetrator was in a position of authority.
On Friday, Sonke Gender Justice called for perpetrators of violence to be held accountable, regardless of their status in society.
Bafana Khumalo, co-executive director of Sonke Gender Justice and co-chairperson of the Global Men Engage Alliance, said: “This is the only way we will see the tide turning against gender-based violence, by ensuring that justice is served.
“We also call on men to reflect on their behaviour and limit all actions that create vulnerability and exposure to violence for women.”
Independent on Saturday