African Women on Board (AWB), on Friday, launched a Safety in the Workplace Initiative to protect women from abuses and harassment they encounter in their workplaces.
The launch, which held in Lagos, had the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Leonard, and Ayodele Atsenuwa, Professor of Public Law and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Lagos, as keynote speakers. Women legal practitioners, students, and other professionals in different fields were also at the launch.
AWB is an independent non-profit organisation that is committed to women’s leadership, economic empowerment, and improves the realities of African women and girls globally.
Speaking at the launch, Nkiru Balonwu, the Chairperson of African Women on Board, said the “Safety in the Workplace initiative” is a significant and timely three-year project designed to facilitate change in workplace systems and reshape working environments to become places that foster female growth and career development, rather than abuse and violence.
Mrs Balonwu said the AWD is focusing on the legal sector in the first phase given the report that many women legal professionals have been victims of abuses and harassment at the workplace.
“We chose the legal sector as our first industry of focus because it provides both a challenge and a solution. Research from the International Bar Association (IBA) has shown that one in three female legal professionals will be subject to abuse during their careers.
“Conversely, we know that the profession can be an emblem of rights and equality, a pioneering industry in the reshaping of traditional work culture and can directly influence and drive policies to create a cascading effect across multiple sectors,” she said.
Giving her keynote remark virtually, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Ms Leonard, spoke on “Gender Equity and the Future of work.”
She said men and even women themselves sometimes feel the need to justify the inclusion of women in important places on the basis of value, whereas, inclusion should not be on basis of value as women should not be required to make something better than it was before they got there.
Ms Leonard said the safety in the workplace initiative by AWB is timely and important and needed to protect women from abuses and harassment.
“How we educate women facing obstacles, such as sexual and other forms of harassment is important.
“Legally, every woman and student should be safe traveling between home and workplace or between home and their educational institutions,” she said.
Mr Atsenuwa, in his address, said promoting a culture of zero tolerance for violence in the workplace should start from educational institutions, using the law schools as case study.
Mr Atsenuwa said the legal workplace in Nigeria and many other countries, is “bedeviled by a reputation of exploitation and abuse.”
“Senior lawyers abuse and exploit junior lawyers, senior judges (high court) intimidate and overawe junior judges (magistrates). One factor that stands out in enabling this situation is the extremely hierarchical nature of relations within the profession. The profession is not only steeped in the tradition of respect for seniority at the bar, but it also supports various other hierarchies of relations,” he said.
The professor of law further said workplace safety encompass factors that impact the safety, health, and well-being, and actions outside these can lead to minor cases of disrespect to criminal offences including, homicide, physical assault, threat, verbal insult, harassment and bullying.
“Workplace violence has grave consequences for the individual, the organization in which the violence takes place as well as the larger society.
“It is clear that if we truly desire to lay the foundations for safety in the workplace, we must start from the educational institutions that equip people for life by imparting knowledge and skills to them,” he said.
Speaking on how Nigeria’s educational system including the legal educational system fosters a culture of violence, Mr Atsenuwa said the “extremely hierarchical structure of relations” between lecturer/professor and students is a factor.
“The culture of silence over sexuality and sexual relationships and stigma arising from
sexual victimization, high tolerance for sexual harassment and other forms of bullying in universities fostered with the hierarchical structure of relations resulting in a historical culture of impunity, ” he said.
Mr Atsenuwa added that the absence of ineffective law and policy frameworks for prevention and punishment of violence especially sexual harassment, is also promoting this culture.
Speaking on the frameworks within the legal association to stop the abuse and harassment of women in the workplace, Chinyere Okorocha, the Vice-Chairperson, NBA Women Forum, said they are building resilience in women practitioners and an environment they need to thrive.
“We have shown zero tolerance for gender-based violence within the profession and what we are doing is strengthening the capacity of institution to give justice to victims of violence,” she said.
AWB also held the formal launch of the “Gender Equity Certification” in alignment with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5).
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