Women and Democracy Initiative responses to sexism, patriarchy and sexual misconduct within civil society organisations

The Women and Democracy Initiative (WDI) identifies as feminist, challenging systemic power, patriarchal norms and pervasive misogyny. We take an informed position to challenge the social system and dominant narratives that colluded with people accused of sexual misconduct and abuses of power and silence those who seek justice and protection.

We hold firmly that measures must be taken by organisations to promote environments with a culture of challenging sexual violence, misogyny and abuses of power, environments that are safe for people to speak out about these experiences. It is essential to put robust processes in place to manage complaints in a manner that is as impartial, transparent and safe as possible. We think that it is important to recognise that no processes will be protected from the exercise of power by the people involved, as a result we believe that it is crucial for processes to honestly engage with the issues that arise from potential power imbalances between the individuals concerned, as well as with the questions of the social and political power that the individuals respectively have at their disposal.

We are concerned in general with the systematic downplaying of the interplay between sexuality and power in our work spaces. The power dynamics involved in sexual relationships in work and activist spaces are as relevant as the issue of consent and coercion. The focus should not only be the issue of consent, but should also look at questions of ethical and professionally appropriate behaviour and if it includes any form of abuse of power. In social-justice oriented settings – which include as central, an analysis of how power is used in subtle and insidious, as well as in explicit and forceful ways to serve the interests of those who have more power – the bar is certainly higher. In our opinion, working in these environments requires a high standard of accountability in this regard.

These issues are not isolated to Equal Education (EE), and the WDI would like to avoid only being reactive to the intense and increasingly personality driven debates that have arisen. We would also like to use this opportunity to consider the bigger picture issues that this example raises for organisations across civil society. We consider that the questions posed are pertinent to civil society organisations ranging from academic institutions, NGOs, social movements and funders. The bigger picture of endemic patriarchy and sexism creates the conditions in which sexual harassment takes place. We anticipate that if many of our organisations were put under the same scrutiny currently faced by EE, we would fall short of the mark. WDI, inhabits the same generally patriarchal and sexist civil society environment that we all do, and as with some others we’ve generally been more diplomatic regarding these issues inside the sector than we’ve been externally. The current media attention to EE presents a challenge for us to take a more honest look at the exercise of male power, sexism, harassment and violence within our own organisations and across civil society.

The situation in EE raises another set of complexities. Here we are dealing with questions of harassment and complicity not with the ‘outside’ ‘them’, but in relation to people and organisations with whom we’ve worked and for whom we hold respect. Indeed in respect of people and organisations who have high standing in civil society. Based on the nature of their work and track records, they have power within the sector. This raises background questions of what the implications of taking a position on the situation may be on our involvement in coalitions, on funding, and generally on our future work in the sector. This feature is common in any context in which abuses of power and sexual violence is raised. It is essential that we in the sector challenge ourselves to not replicate the social norms to automatically deny, rationalise or minimise the behaviour of the people we know; and ignore, discredit or vilify the complainants.

WDI has decided not to engage with the merits or pronounce on the veracity of the allegations against the people concerned or EE’s past practices at this time for a few reasons. Firstly EE appears to have initiated a rigorous process in this regard. Secondly, we are not privy to a balanced and thorough examination of the information available. Thirdly, we have existing working relationships with the people named and this impacts on our ability to be impartial. Finally we are averse to participating in the court of public opinion relating to the individuals involved. Thus we are choosing, now, to apply ourselves to questioning the responses, systems and processes in the sector more generally.

In addition to the media reports, the WDI has been exposed to information and opinions relating to the EE situation through communications platforms such as email and What’s App groups. Although we have seen communications that are balanced, recognising the complexities and mindful of power, we are concerned that some of the communication spaces are skewed to favour those with power and silence the voices of those making the complaints. As social justice activists we must guard against perpetuating the imbalance through our communications.

We notice a polarisation developing between people who believe the allegations are or could be true and those who are defending the integrity and protesting the innocence of the people concerned. This is not surprising, but extremely unhelpful at this stage, and based on the information available. Few of us have direct enough experience to make informed decisions about what actually happened. The complexities of how power and sexuality plays out in work and activist spaces and in the narratives that follow means that our starting point for action now should be that it is possibly true, possibly untrue, and possibly only partially true. This is why we believe that rigorous process and refraining from making subjective personality-driven judgements based only on the current information available is essential.

Under EE’s current leadership, WDI supports the process that EE is undertaking in respect of the most recent allegations of sexual harassment as well as the allegations relating to the previous cases. Overall we would expect EE, ourselves, and other CSOs in future, to grapple with the questions of partiality and independence of the people who formally consider the merits of any allegations - who sets up and leads the processes, who has direct or indirect influence on the process, and how the processes are conducted. The question of relationships of power between the individuals accused and the structures that are established to investigate the complaints is critical to mitigate against the influence that preexisting relationships between the people against whom complaints are made and the people tasked with investigating these matters. In this instance, and in many others, the people against whom complaints are levelled hold significant power and there is the potential that this would be invoked by them directly, or by people who have close relationships of trust and respect for them (intentionally or unintentionally).

Given the general culture of covering up sexual harassment and abuses of power, we consider a robust, independent and appropriately transparent process that explicitly and honestly grapples with the power dynamics among the people involved as well as a sound examination of the way that we all exercise our access to power in the process to be necessary.

We realise that this communication may be controversial and elicit debate and we welcome critical engagement with the positions that we’ve taken.

Sam Waterhouse and Vivienne Mentor-Lalu
Women and Democracy Initiative, Dullah Omar Institute

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