By Assumpta Reginald & Abdulkadir Ibrahim
We have followed with keen interest the #Metoo campaign as it makes concerted efforts to unearth ugly stories about sexual harassment in the workplace globally.
What started as a campaign to expose sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in the movie industry in the United States has now spread to more industries and workplaces in other countries.
The United Nations (UN) in general has not been spared by the momentum of the #Metoo movement, with growing allegations of harassment, especially sexual harassment.
Our very own Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) too is also under intense scrutiny.
Although sexual harassment in workplaces is a challenge that cuts across gender, most accusations tend to be made against men in top management positions.
It is important to stress here that there is no justification for any man or woman to face sexual harassment anywhere, especially in the well revered UN.
Therefore, all allegations of sexual harassments that are reported to authorities should be thoroughly investigated and any man or woman found culpable be punished accordingly.
In our different roles as leaders of networks of women and other people living with HIV in Nigeria, we have been privileged to work closely with the UNAIDS leadership, including the outgoing Deputy Executive Director for Programmes, Luiz Loures, and other members of the top management. In them, we have found professional individuals of good standing, who have respect for the dignity of all people. They have not only restored hope to the most vulnerable, especially, people living with HIV, they have also carried all segments of people along. Dr Loures’ solidarity with key populations and civil society groups is commendable.
UNAIDS is famous for its vision and setting of ambitious global goals and targets. In the face of the recent sexual harassment allegations in the United Nations, we are pleased to see that the UNAIDS Executive Director, Mr Michel Sidibe, has moved quickly to put forward a five-point plan for greater accountability and transparency.
The five points plan include appointing of focal points in every UNAIDS department or office; having an open platform for staff to report sexual harassment; training and empowering staff with skills to prevent and report harassment cases; conducting yearly independent surveys on staff well-being that integrates sexual harassment; and performance evaluation of staff that allows ethical behaviour to be assessed.
Can this new UNAIDS five-point plan prevent and address all forms of harassment, especially, those that are sexually related? What is however certain is that, the plan seems to the credible and promising. It needs to be given the needed support to flourish.
As civil society, we have a unique opportunity to work together to prevent, expose and denounce all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse against women.
We, therefore, feel that the plan can only succeed if it is closely monitored and supported by friends and allies of UNAIDS including women groups, communities, donors, governments and other key stakeholders in the global HIV response.
There is, therefore, the need for all to come together and join forces to ensure that the UNAIDS leadership remains transparent and accountable.
Although we are getting closer to ending the AIDS epidemic as a serious challenge to global public health, we are extremely worried that the damaging allegations of sexual harassment at UNAIDS, while deserving attention, may be diverting the attention of the global HIV community from the agenda of achieving the 90-90-90 target and ending AIDS as a public health threat.
In Nigeria, for instance, only one in three people living with HIV is on treatment and nearly 40,000 children are still being born with HIV each year.
Let us all rally behind the five-point plan and ensure that the right people are appointed to the external high-level independent panel of women to provide recommendations on the way forward to UNAIDS.
In the words of the ATHENA team: “UNAIDS now has the unique opportunity to forge change in this area… to deliver a new model of the world we all seek” – a workplace free of all forms of sexual harassment.
Together, we can stop sexual harassment in the workplace.
Assumpta Reginald is the National Coordinator of the Association of Women Living with HIV in Nigeria (ASWHAN) while Abdulkadir Ibrahim is the National Secretary of the Network of People Living with HIV in Nigeria (NEPWHAN)