/ 19 September 2007

Sexual harassment on farms increasing, SAHRC hears

Sexual harassment on farms is on the increase and the victims are getting younger, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) heard on Wednesday.

This was according to Claudia Lopes from Rural Education Awareness and Community Health (Reach), presenting at public hearings on the effectiveness of legislative and policy changes in farming communities.

The hearings are being held partly as a follow-up to a 2003 study conducted by the commission, but it also includes an assessment of how changes in government policy since then have impacted on farmers and farm workers.

Lopes said a study conducted in 2003 by her organisation, compared with a study conducted in 2006, indicated that sexual harassment is on the increase in both males and females in rural areas and that it is being perpetrated against younger victims.

Submissions to the commission by Reach and Women on Farms indicate that women working and living on farms remain largely marginalised.

They are subjected to lower wages, job insecurity and poor working conditions.

The submissions indicated that women face abuse from their employers, their colleagues and their partners.

Charmel Smith from the Stellenbosch-based NGO Women on Farms, told of how a female farm worker asked her employer for a R20 loan, to which he responded that he did not have the money.

The man later entered her room and attacked and raped her, leaving a R20 note on the kitchen table for her to find.

Smith said women are largely at the mercy of their partners as they are dependent on them for shelter and food.

”Mostly women are dependent on their husbands to provide shelter and food and all the necessary resources. If he beats her she stays because she has nowhere else to go,” Smith said.

Earlier, the commission heard that a system to monitor the abuse of farm workers and farm evictions, another issue featuring prominently in the submissions, is required.

SAHRC chairperson Jody Kollapen said there are currently no ”authoritative” databases to quantify these problems.

”There is currently no way to characterise the nature and extent of the problem,” he said.

A submission on farm evictions was heard from Mzikayise Madyo from the Southwell Community and Fransiena Van Wyk from Women on Farms.

Kollapen also noted a submission on the current lack of coherence between policy, law and practice.

Eric Watkinson, presenting on behalf of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, referred to this issue as ”disjointedness”.

”There’s a need for the integration of government programmes … we experience problems in getting the government to tell us how to access programmes.”

Patrick Hundermark, from the Legal Aid Board, in his submission added that legal aid for farm workers needs to be provided on a more sustainable basis.

”The major challenge is implementing legislation … proper costing is necessary to ensure the sustainable realisation of farm dwellers’ rights,” he said.

Kollapen said the hearings ware not ”an attempt to bash farmers”, rather they are aimed at understanding the various pressures on the industry.

It also emerged that there is a ”lack of trust” between parties in the sector and this needs to be addressed.

He said the commission will make findings and recommendations after the hearings, but it is necessary ”to go beyond this” as there is a ”need for some kind of intervention”.

The hearings conclude on Thursday. — Sapa