International Development and Sexual Harassment of Local Female Hires in Africa

October 2009.  I’m the new country director for Oxfam GB in Nigeria.

August 2010. I’ve been with Oxfam GB 10 months. I finally go to Oxford for Orientation. Its my first time in the UK.  Almost 60 CD’s from all over the world are in Oxford. There is a 3 day CD convention after the week of orientation.

I’m in the hotel lounge with the other CD’s from English West Africa talking shop. Our line manager joins us. He just arrived. We’re talking shop, programs and development. He refers to a document he wants me to see several times. It’s in his room he says. ‘I’ll pick it up on my way up to my room.’

It occurs to me going to his room may be a bad idea for all those reasons your momma ever told you. I dismiss the thought. We’re professionals. He’s my boss. He has never shown any inappropriate interest in me. Or vice versa. If I were a man I would go without hesitation. I go.

In his room he brings out the document, it’s a concept map. I don’t sit down; we discuss it briefly. I don’t want to stay long. A woman’s ability is always in doubt.  I don’t want my work to be devalued by rumors I may have been closer to the boss than appropriate. If I were a man I would stay. I go.

I walk towards the door. Turn to say good night. He grabs me. Pushes his tongue in my mouth. Pulls me back into the room, pushes me onto the bed. Grabs and fiddles with my belt buckle with one hand. My heart is pounding. My head is reeling. I clasp my teeth shut. Try to push him away. ‘No, no, no!’ Not strong enough but the space I create between us gives room for his hands to unbuckle my belt.

So I pull him closer. Relax. Play dead for a minute. For a split second it occurs to me that giving in would be easier. Let him have his way. Keep my job. Keep good working relationships. He’s lying on top of me. His smell fills my nostrils. This is not what I want. I rally all my strength and push him off.

‘How are we supposed to work together after this? I met your wife! What have you done? Why?” I rush out of the room. Downstairs. Sit in the cold outside. Smoke a cigarette. Try to compose myself. My thoughts race frantically. Not again. Not now. I thought I had outgrown this. I worry about my job. Not myself. Not yet.

I’m a Nigerian. Lived and worked in Nigeria all my adult life. It’s hard enough to report and prove a rape. An attempted rape? I don’t even think about it. My job is at risk. How do I protect my job? If I report how will I work with the West Africa team? Almost 90% of senior staff are male. I’m the only female CD in the English speaking countries. Only one female CD in the French speaking countries. Only 2 women on the regional management team.

Eventually I calm down and go to sleep. I see him at breakfast the next day. I shudder, I gag, I can’t eat. I note my reaction with some surprise and curiosity. I avoid him for the rest of the day. For the rest of the trip. I hear Oxfam GB has a head shrink for staff. I go see the shrink the next day. He calls in HR. I tell her my story.

‘Do you want to file a formal complaint?’ she asks.

‘I’m worried it will affect my working relationships in West Africa.’

‘Have you spoken to him? Told him how you feel?’

Huh? Lady I can barely look at him without a violent reaction.

‘Did you tell him ‘no’?

Huh? Didn’t I say that already?

‘Does he know his action was not welcome?’

Huh? Are you suggesting I led him on?

‘We handled a complaint recently. Two employees that had an affair that went bad.’

Huh? Are you suggesting this is an affair gone bad?

Is this a preview of a formal hearing?

‘Look. I don’t know what I want to do right now but I want you to know in case he tries to victimize me.’

’You should talk to him. Tell him how you feel.’

But I can’t. Not yet.

In September I finally call him and follow up with an email. He takes my call but ignores my email. I go to regional office in October, try to act normal. I’m still communicating with HR in Oxford, still looking for a way past this. Still worried, still confused, still devastated. I still have flash backs.

On the 23rd  of November he arrives Abuja from Dakar after closing hours, hands me a letter terminating my contract. I have two days to clear out of the office. Transitions plans already in place. Reason given? An online ad to fill the positions of the troublesome program staff. One was sacked the other resigned rather than answer a query. But the ads weren’t authorized by me and I withdrew them.

I lose my appeal. Oxfam GB says he acted within Nigerian law. Says there is no corroboration to my allegations of sexual assault. What of my report to the shrink? To the HR? What of my email to the accused? He admits I came to his room but denies the events, says I hit on him, that he ‘sent me away’. That my email ‘baffled him.’ They believe him not me. What corroboration is there for his version?

I hear stories from other women that worked in international development. Similar stories. From West Africa. From East Africa. From South Africa. Randy expatriate boss. Getting away with things he wouldn’t even try in his home country. The local women always lose their jobs.  One is still in court 5 years later, her savings exhausted.

I eventually I do make a report to the Thames Valley Police. They believe me, record a crime, investigate, don’t find enough evidence for a trial. They consider extraditing him for questioning. He resigns abruptly.  I feel a bit better but how to fix the bigger problem? What are my chances fighting a cash rich behemoth like Oxfam GB in court?



11 thoughts on “International Development and Sexual Harassment of Local Female Hires in Africa

  1. So sorry to hear of your experience of sexual assault on the job. You were brave to report and pursue the man and it’s tragic that you got little support from Oxfam.

  2. I just had a long chat with a friend tonit and it’s about a job intvw she had 2wks back and the head of the NGO has already made passes at her right from the intvw. He told how cute her and though she’s not been offered the job as yet, he’s asked her out for dinner and hinted she’ll be traveling around wt him etc as the accountant…bla bla

  3. This is quiet common in the civil society and development circles. You go on international conferences and any polite conversion over lunch or dinner result in unwarranted advances. I share slightly different experience where a man asks to speak to me and the hotel proceeds to give out my room number without my knowledge. the man knocks at my door and I ask myself once I open should I let him in? if I was a man I would not hesitate, why should I doubt his intentions when he had not given me reason to. he comes in and has nothing much to say and I say to him I have reports to work on. then he grabs me and tries to push me on the bed, I threaten to scream and shout while fighting him off. I pray, I curse myself for being naive, so many thoughts rushing therough my door. I threaten to scream, to report to conference organizers, to his organization, to police and he leaves. He claims he is remorseful, he finds me next day to apologise again and I tell him how he is such a hypocrite hiding behind human right conferences while he violates all the fundamentals. I shy away from this kind of meetings as it is now clearer to me that a number of men think it is the ideal time to explore and feed their desires. All the same I am glad that you fought back, I am glad that you did not give up.

  4. Nauseating indeed in this age. Reminiscent of colonial mentality, perhaps even as distant as the slave trade era. The white lord assaulting his black cadre, perhaps deemed acceptable because of an ‘inferior race’ myth. RUBBISH!!! The empire has long crumbled. its imperative Oxfam gets off its high horse and fix its otherwise tainted image…

  5. Now the head is on the ground and right has become wrong. Sorry to hear about this. The bravery in your act given the situation is not mistaken. Btw; I thought I was reading through a short story; had to repeatedly tell myself this is real. It’s sad this holds even in development structures and establishment. Please do what you have to do; at least it would be said that someone once did. How long are we sure this man has been doing this and getting away with it. Some men and that sname between their legs sha! Argh!

  6. You triumphed by NOT letting him have his way! Everything else is secondary. You’ll be fine, with time you’ll heal & move on.

  7. This is obscene in every possible way, and doubly so with an organization like Oxfam. I’m so sorry you have had to go through this. You have started doing what you can do – namely blogging about it. Spread the word.

    And do look into suing them anyways. If you can find an attorney to take the case on contingency, it’s not impossible that you could still triumph.

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