Ushahidi Needs to Act and Be Seen to Act on Sexual Harassment Claims

Old Habits Die Hard

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For an organization whose name literally means ‘testimony’, there appears to be a problem at Ushahidi. The company has been the subject of much speculation after revelations that it did nothing after an employee reported a member of senior management for sexual harassment.

What all these allegations reveal is a deep-seated culture of harassment and intimidation that almost identically parallels that of Silicon Valley, where women in the tech space are routinely abused and harassed, and whenever a story does emerge, so does a chorus of “It happened to me too”.

The most recent allegations of sexual harassment were the subject of an Ushahidi All Hands Team Call made by board chair Erik Hersman on 23rd May 2017. The subject of the call was ‘an internal matter’ related to allegations of sexual harassment that the board was handling. At the time, Erik indicated that he and the board were giving the matter their highest priority.

Earlier, another member of Ushahidi’s staff also reported a sexual proposition made by the same perpetrator behind the most recent allegations. Furthermore, the alleged perpetrator was linked to yet another incident in 2015, and he still retained his position at the organization.

Erik’s recommended course of action following these allegations was to ask the accusers and anyone who had any information to speak to the Ushahidi board or the organization’s management, which in this case included the alleged perpetrator.

The Sexual Offences Act of 2006 makes it an offence for any person, who being in a position of authority, or a person holding a public office, persistently makes any sexual advances or requests which he or she knows, or has reasonable grounds to know, are unwelcome. The penalty for this is imprisonment of at least three years or a fine of at least 100,000 shillings or both.

Anyone accused of something as serious as sexual harassment would be expected to step aside and allow for investigations to be carried out. However, in this case, the alleged perpetrator is at the helm of an organization behind various initiatives to combat sexual harassment and gender-based violence around the world, such as HarrassMap and SafeCity. As a result, not only is it deeply disturbing that someone repeatedly accused of sexual harassment would maintain his position at this organization, but it completely violates the principles behind the organization’s existence and the expectation that employees would have that their workplace is a safe space.

In a statement issued after the allegations first came to light, the Ushahidi Board noted that they were fully aware of the allegations of sexual harassment, and that the employee who brought them up has since left the company.

While the statement goes on to add that there is an internal inquiry into the matter, why did it take more than two months for this situation to be dealt with? The All Hands Team Call over this matter was made in May, and given the nature of the allegations, one would assume that it would be treated expeditiously, but despite claims that the organization is ‘taking this claim seriously’, it appears that the opposite is true in this case.

While the statement goes on to say that the company does not condone sexual harassment in any form, the fact is that the accused still maintains his position, which goes against this assertion. Even as investigations are underway as stated, the fact is that the person who brought the allegations forward has left the company, and as such the chain of events that ultimately led to this situation cannot be undone.

Even as this investigation is conducted, some important questions need to be asked, including whether the person at the center of these allegations should continue representing the organization, and what other potential allegations have been buried considering the emergence of further damning allegations against the executive stretching back for more than a decade.

What is clear in all this is that in acting to ‘save’ the ecosystem from the potential damage that these allegations carry, the result is even more damage that cannot be contained, given the explosive revelations that have come to light. If they really do care about this ecosystem they are so keen to protect, a starting point would be to conclusively deal with this matter as soon as possible, not only for justice to prevail, but so that nobody else will ever have to go through this.

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