Written by Christine Butegwa

The workplace can be seen as a microcosm of the inequalities in society where the power imbalances that exist in society are also played out in professional settings. In the capitalistic, neo-colonial, postcolonial, patriarchal today’s world, those with power and privilege tend to be white, older, rich, heterosexual, able-bodied, males. Conversely, those vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and harassment tend to be poor, black and other minority races, women, young people, and persons with disabilities, among others. The following examples illustrate the various faces and forms of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (SEAH) at the workplace as defined by the United Nations.

Sexual exploitation: “Any actual or attempted abuse of position of vulnerability, differential power or trust for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another”.[i]

Sexual abuse: “Actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions”. Transactional sex is “The exchange of money, employment, goods or services for sex, including sexual favours and other forms of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behavior. This includes any exchange of assistance that is due to beneficiaries of assistance”.

Sexual harassment: “Any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”. Sexual harassment is considered SEAH when this conducts also amounts to sexual exploitation or sexual abuse.[ii]

SEAH as a form of gender-based violence (GBV) has always been a focus of the global and African women’s movements for decades. However, the viral #metoo movement in 2018, made the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace more visible due to the high profiles of the alleged perpetrators and survivors. The confluence of the #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, and the #aidtoo movements served to highlight the intersectionality of abuse and resistance, and the fact that at the heart of this abuse was harmful use of power and privilege over those in society considered ‘powerless’ or with less power.

The #aidtoo, #metoo and #blacklivesmatter caused a flurry of changes in various workplaces which has been a welcome development. There have been many normative international and local frameworks and policies put in place including the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention C190 on harassment in the workplace that was adopted in 2019. Private sector, development and humanitarian organizations have recommitted to, introduced and invested resources in organizational policies, staff training programs, establishing complaint and redress mechanisms on SEAH as well as in diversity and inclusion programs in the workplace.

Nonetheless, without addressing the root causes of SEAH, there will be little progress in creating diverse, inclusive, gender equal workplaces. It is crucial to address unequal and harmful power and privilege as the root causes of SEAH in the workplace. The rich lessons from feminist theory and practice on the subject of power, privilege and transformational leadership is one of the useful tools that different institutions – whether private sector, development or humanitarian groups – can use to move from mere compliance to policies towards real transformational change of the organizational culture in our workplaces.

In a Webinar on this subject, Sally Proudlove from Dove [iii] recommends what type of organizational culture is needed to address harmful power and privilege as the root causes of SEAH:

  • A healthy safeguarding culture is one where values and behavior are both articulated and lived at each level of the organization.
  • A culture of curiosity, scrutiny, and constructive challenge (with processes to underpin these behaviors)
  • A culture committed to transforming unequal power and privilege and fostering gender equality and inclusion. This means including the perspectives, needs and experiences of diverse groups especially marginalized in all organizational processes and work.

She further recommends that organisations should ask themselves the following questions when analyzing how power and privilege is distributed in the workplace and its effect on organizational culture:

  • Who gets a seat at the table?
  • Who has decision-making power
  • What behaviours indicate genuine shifts in power?
  • How are we educating ourselves about the interplay between different power dynamics?
  • How do leaders demonstrate that safeguarding is prioritized?

Lastly, ActionAid International is an example of an organization that has strived to live and practice its values of transformational change at the workplace through its 10 principles of feminist leadership.[iv] These 10 principles reimagine a new way of building and transforming their organizational culture into one that routinely reimagines positive ways of harnessing power so that it is more collaborative, shared and transparent (power with). It also places importance on building individual power (power within, and power to) through concentrating on self-care, awareness of and dismantling bias, having the courage to hold ourselves and the institution accountable to its values. Finally, having a zero tolerance to abuse of power and privilege is an important accountability mechanism that ensures we act on our policies, and do not only leave our policies to gather dust in the proverbial ‘cupboards’.

All of us should strive to practice values that promote safety, respect, equality, diversity and inclusion especially of the marginalized groups in our workplaces and communities.


[i] United Nations Glossary on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse: Thematic Glossary of Current Terminology related to Sexual Exploitation and abuse (SEA) in the Context of the United Nations, 2016.

[ii] Ibid

[iii] https://safeguardingsupporthub.org/webinars/abusing-power-exploring-root-causes-and-issues-safeguarding-power-privilege-gender-and Accessed on 12/2/2022

[iv] https://actionaid.org/feminist-leadership Accessed on 17/2/2022

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