– Nghidimondjila Hashikutuva
“One day during our rotation, a lecturer pulled away my scrubs without my permission, to see my tattoo. Luckily, I was wearing a t-shirt underneath, so he was not able to see anything,” recounts a medical student at the University of Namibia (UNAM) School of Medicine.
*Josephine, now a sixth year student at UNAM, says that at first, she did not “think too much of it” until a colleague pointed out to her how inappropriate the incident was.
According to students at the university, sexual harassment from senior and principal medical staff is frequent and goes unreported. Most of them, though, do not know the channels – if any – that exist to report and deal with cases of sexual harassment between students working in the hospital, and (senior) hospital staff.
The typical route to becoming a doctor through the UNAM School of Medicine requires students to undergo a 6-year undergraduate programme; with on-site, supervised and graded hospital rotations starting as early as 3rd year. Graduates then have to intern for a year, before applying to the regulatory body, the Health Professionals Council of Namibia (HPCNA).
While students at UNAM School of Medicine ruled out sexual coercion from their experiences, many of them noted the common presence of crude and sexist remarks, sexist imagery, and unwanted verbal or physical sexual attention from senior medical officers.
Sexual harassment in workplace environments is obviously nothing new. Its underreporting is also not isolated.
In 2019, Saskia den Adel-Sheehama conducted a rapid assessment on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work in Namibia for the International Labor Organisation (ILO) and the Ministry of Labor, Industrial Relations and Employment Creation. The findings were that “violence and harassment in the world of work is high, negatively affects a large part of Namibia’s workforce and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.”
The study also concluded that labor laws in the country are not “explicit and comprehensive” with regard to workplace sexual harassment and violence—meaning that reporting structures are unclear and inefficient, and there is insufficient legal obligation for workplaces to establish effective anti-harassment policies and frameworks.
However, there may be a particular reason why, especially, women in medicine (or training) may commonly experience sexual harassment in their field.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) conducted research over 30 years, which suggests that, among others, sexual harassment is prone to thrive in environments where “hierarchical relationships between faculty and trainees are enforced”, and which environments are characterised by male-dominance.
Another medical student – who wishes to not be named – also says that it does not help that they (students) do their rotations under the supervision of consultants and other healthcare personnel who are not their university and course lecturers; meaning that the channels of supervision and accountability can become fractured.
“If someone is harassed by a consultant, should we report to the hospital staff or to the faculty back to the university? So if I am doing a rotation in Onandjokwe Hospital, how am I supposed to report a case of harassment when my faculty staff is based in Windhoek?” he asks with concern.
Some students, however, feel that even if they were to report sexual harassment to UNAM, or to the HPCNA, they may still face backlash or retaliation, and would still struggle to get justice.
Last year, the #ShutItAllDown protested at UNAM Main Campus, demanding that the university “urgently reviews policies” that address sexual and gender-based violence on campus and among students. At around the same time, the HPCNA also came under fire for allowing a medical doctor to practise in Namibia, despite him being found guilty of sexual harassment in Ireland.
The students believe that the university can reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and promote accountability by clearly defining (and raising awareness on) the channels through which sexual harassment can be reported. Most of them stress that they do not think that such channels exist.
They also believe that (senior) medical staff should receive sensitisation training on sexual harassment and “appropriate and ethical behavior”.
“I doubt that some of these guys even know what consent is, even though they hold so much public trust. They must learn like everyone else. We should be able to feel safe when we are at our place of study and work,” says a 5th year student at the university.
*Not Real Name