An apparent rise in a culture of sexual demands and favors shows larger truths about the abuse that some young people face in acquiring jobs in Liberia. Two young men and a woman, who names are being withheld to protect their identifies, have told FrontPage Africa that they have been propositioned repeatedly over the last several months for sex by men in authority in exchange for jobs or favors.
John, not his real name, is a recent college graduate with a degree in accounting who says he has applied for jobs at many financial institutions and international organizations around Monrovia but have yet to get hired. A personal contact eventually led him to Jacob Mayson, a relationship manager at the First International Bank (FiBank) on Broad St., where he submitted a job application after passing the bank’s skills-based test. He said Mayson introduced him to FiBank’s human resources director and told him to contact him later. Excited that he had landed his first real job, John said, he rushed to tell his father and his girlfriend that he was starting a new job, but his dream soon turned into shock and dismay when he allegedly received a series of unambiguous text messages from Mayson who was helping him get the job: “I want to have sex with you. Arrange it.” Other messages then followed: “If you do’t give me that, you’re not gonna have the job. Trust me,” the message said, under the initials “J.M.”
“I felt downhearted,” said John. “I cried all night, I couldn’t sleep. I told my father. What was the essence of going to school? If that is what I have to do to get ajob, then, I rather sit home and open my own business, but I will not be forced into a lifestyle of homosexuality,” he said. John, 27, said this was not the first time potential hiring managers had demanded sexual favors from him in exchange for a job. He said a director, who name he doesn’t remember, at an international non-governmental organization working in Liberia requested he kissed him and tried to touch his genitals. “But, I didn’t have hard evidence. This time I do, so, I kept the text messages to show as evidence in order to bring this perpetrator to justice,” he added.
When contacted, Mayson confirmed sending the text messages, but directed all further questions to his lawyer, Tupee Taylor, who instead of defending her client tried to discourage coverage of the story.
“He is not gay,” she said. “He is a young man with a family who made a mistake; please don’t destroy him and his career.”
Attorney Taylor said that the press should leave her client, a married man and father, alone and go after what she described as, “very powerful men in Liberia who are preying on young boys.” “My client is broke, if he had money he would give it to you [reporter] to not publish this story, but he is a manager at the bank and don’t make much,” she suggested.
“The bank has nothing to do with it, we only found out after a call,” said Rhonda Richards-vonBallmoos, senior manager for client services and business development at FiBank, and Mayson’s immediate supervisor.
“Mr. Mayson doesn’t have hiring responsibility,” said Richards-vonBallmoos in a visibly agitated and frustrated tone. “We never asked any employee to solicit anyone!”
She said no one has ever come forward to accuse Mayson of sexual misconduct, even though she has been his supervisor for only seven months while he has worked at FiBank for more than three years. The senior pastor of St. Simon Baptist Church on Horton Ave in Bassa Community, where Mayson is reportedly a choir director and may have direct access to youth, Rev. Richard Johnson, said he had to seek permission from his church’s ‘convention’ office (headquarters) in the United States before commenting on the allegations levied against his choir master. Rev. Johnson said it was against the church’s policy to speak publicly about members. He asked to be called back apparently while he sought
permission, but several follow up calls to the pastor were not unanswered. Meet Flomo, an assumed name, a 17 year-old, articulate, tall and slender 11th grader with effeminate characteristics. “I have stopped asking men for help. I have stopped looking for jobs,” he said, while gesturing in a high pitched voice with his mother seated next to him. “Several men have tried to have sex with me while out looking for a job to help my mother.”
He said this has caused him to be withdrawn and feel lonely. To avoid being approached by men for sex, he goes straight home to his mother after school and accompanies her to the market to help her sell. He said students also bully and tease him at school because he acts differently and talks differently.
“I have no friends,” said Flomo. “My mother is my best friend.”
Flomo said he has dreams of being a medical doctor but is unsure how that will be possible with his difficult financial position and a mother who is battling a severe case of heart disease.
Not so surprisingly, the issue of sex for work cuts across all sectors of the Liberian society. Many people interviewed for this story provided anecdotal evidence that the problem is widespread but there is a code of silence and denials involving male on male sexual abuse. Observers believe young women get more support from government and NGOs, and current rape-shield laws help to protect girls, even though they continue to be vulnerable and at risk for abuse.
Fatu, not her real name either, is a junior at a university in Monrovia. One evening after class, she said she received a call from an unknown number. She was hesitant to answer but after repeated calls from the same number, she answered. It was a man on the line. Who she said after a brief conversation described his vehicle and told her he would pick her up from school.
She said when she came out of class she was surprised to see that the white Nissan Patrol SUV waiting to pick her up had an “REP” license plate – REP 37. The man who she said is Representative Saah Joseph of House District #13 suggested that they go to “Sam’s Barbecue,” but she refused. He later told her that they stop at the “CDC” head office, she said, but she again said no and insisted that she be taken home.
“When we got to my house, he told me to go sleep at his place instead,” Fatu said. She told him ostensibly to wait while she changed her clothes. The Representative, who she later realized may have gotten her number from a classmate, waited from 5: 00
p.m. to 12:44 midnight, calling periodically to check if she was still coming. Fatu said she never answered his calls and never showed up, but instead sent the lawmaker these text messages: “How will u feel if a guy do dis to ur daughter or ur sis. A guy she don’t know at all…the best thing u must learn is how to treat a lady cus not every girl u meet n think u can sleep with becuz u are a rep, or something….u are a disgrace to manhood…..after waiting u can now carry ur good for nothing self home!”
In a telephone interview with Rep. Joseph, he acknowledged meeting the young woman but categorically denied ever requesting sex from her or any woman in exchange for favors, and doesn’t remember receiving text messages from her condemning his overtures. He said the entire incident was a set up and politically motivated by people he said are bent on getting his house seat.
“I have not sexually harassed the woman in question or ask her for sex,” Rep. Joseph said. “She is a friend. I gave their class my district’s bus for a field trip and that is how I met her through some young people who work for me.” He forwarded some text messages containing possible words of endearment he claimed were sent by Fatu but the authenticity of the messages original source could not be verified. He said he has turned over additional messages from unknown individuals trying to sexually entrap him to the police for investigation.
However, since the interview with Rep. Joseph, Fatu said she has been deluged with calls from classmates and relatives from whom she has had little contact before she spoke to the press. She fears her name has been deliberately leaked by the Representative in some sort of coercive tactics to intimidate and silence her. “He is trying to use his power and influence against me. I am afraid he could pay someone to harm me.”
You, this is Liberia.”
“While some people may think sexual harassment is a joke, the issue is real,” says Roosevelt Gould, an attorney and human rights advocate. “We are seeing more of it, and such conduct has serious legal consequences for employers and institutions.”
He said although under Liberian Penal Law, “sexual harassment” is silent, but according to a rarely used provision of the penal law called the “General Construction, Section 40,” it is covered, if recognized by courts in England or the United States. The law states: “Except as modified by laws now in force and
those which may hereafter be enacted and by the Liberian common law, the following shall be, when applicable, considered Liberian law: (a) the rules adopted for chancery proceedings in England, and (b) the common law and usages of the courts of England and of the United States of America, as set forth in
case law and in Blackstone’s and Kent’s Commentaries and in other authoritative treatises and digests.”
“Sexual harassment is about using power in a way to hurt somebody,” says international human resources consultant Stanley Ford. He said tough economic times have also been known to foster an environment of increased sexual harassment. It’s possible that in an environment, like Liberia, with high unemployment, a culture of quid pro quo (Latin for “this for that”) finds space to grow.
“Organizations and companies should be mandated to carry training programs once a year on sexual harassment and proper workplace behavior,” Ford added.
It is unclear if the National Legislature or FiBank provides such trainings to its members or employees. Although senior manager Richards-von Ballmoos refused a request of a copy of her company’s Employee Handbook, a review of FiBank’s “Core Values and Beliefs,” published online, under the Integrity section, states that the bank is committed to: “Demonstrating the quality of being honest, professional and having strong moral values in all transactions within or outside the Bank.”