As tension from the Presidential elections fills the air, the streets of Port Gentil, Gabon's second largest city and centre of the petroleum and timber industries, are practically empty. A few soldiers in camouflage uniform and dark aviator sunglasses stand on the side of the road by roadblocks. It's hot and dusty and everyone is afraid of violence. In 2009 violence erupted after the current president Ali Bongo was elected to Presidency in what were subsequently determined to be unfair elections. This time, people are afraid that there will be violence again. Everyone is stockpiling food, shops are closed and empty, the owners fearful of looters. The day before the elections cars lined up for miles at gas stations, filling up in anticipation of shortages. As the results are announced, the violence begins with claims of electoral rigging. Ali Bongo is president again and the opposition supporters are not happy. Rumors of burning and shootings outside in the streets trickle in to the house where we have taken shelter. We're all worried.
Unable to go outside I spend the week locked inside a small house on the outskirts of Port Gentil with a group of French men and Gabonese women. As an oil rich country the lucrative deals to be made in Gabon have drawn in many foreigners from other West African nations including a large number of French nationals who are mostly male.
The first night under lockdown one of the French men in the house begins the conversation with a joke about women needing to stay in the kitchen. 'It's part of the culture to discriminate against women here,' he says. 'It's really difficult to hire a woman because men say that they won't take orders from a woman. They would rather punish her by not hiring her than punish men for thinking this way.'
Taken aback I want to learn more. I begin a discussion with one of the women in the house asking her what the situation is like for women in Gabon.
'Women are beaten for any reason, for not making food he can beat her. Even if she's sick she has to sleep with her husband,' she says.
We extend the discussion with two of the Gabonese women in the kitchen one evening. Discrimination in the workplace seems to be a major problem and both say it's hard for women to work in Gabon. One of the women was working in a company where they were selling spare parts, her boss told her that if she wanted to stay she would have to have sex with him.
'If a man is attracted to a woman at work and she refuses him, than it could be really hard for her,' she said.
'When women go to an interview the men will just look at her body and hire her if he likes her. They don't think about what she has to say or what she can do for their buisness, just the way she looks,' says another.
'When a woman comes to Gabon from another West African country it's really hard for her to get a job. She has to sleep with the boss to be able to work,' she continues.
All the women agree this is commonplace in Gabon.
I ask about protection for women in these situations but all the women shake their heads. 'The only solution is to leave the job. If it's a private company than the guy can do whatever he wants.'
'It's of course wrong,' says one woman when I ask her what she thinks about such behavior.
Earlier that week one of the French men told me, 'you know here they'll just think that you're nothing more than a piece of meat.' He was referring to Gabonese men.
Another French man working in the town commented that Port Gentil is a hard place for women, 'foreign women don't really stay long around here. There's a lot of discrimination.'
Discrimination there is.
Still under lock down out of fear from the violence on the streets outside, one of the Frenchman and I begin a conversation. He's annoyed that I'm complaining about sexual harassment. I should understand that I'm not in my country, 'maybe there are women here who like that,' he tells me aggressively. I look at him shocked at his audacity to suggest that a woman would like sexual harassment, but not surprised. He is one of the many men who has not only tried to deny that there is a problem with sexual harassment despite the overwhelming evidence that there is indeed a very large problem.
As the dust settles from the election violence in Gabon, life will return to normal. Part of that normal will include violence towards women and women expecting to be sexually harassed at work. People will continue to shrug their shoulders and dismiss the problem as 'culture'. In fact, most won't address the problem at all because it is just a problem that affects women and men will continue to think sexual harassment is 'no big deal'. Problems are only taken seriously when they too affect men, like in the case of the elections. The streets were filled with violence because men were unhappy with their rights not being respected. It's about time that around the world too take to the streets too to demand that their rights be respected.Suggest a correction