Her self-esteem was at rock bottom. She became uncertain, found it difficult to formulate her words and started to stutter. After being subjected to severe sexual harassment, Emilia Åhfelt Dimitriadis now works to discourage bullying at workplaces.
Summer 2003. Emilia is 22 years old and has just finished the first two weeks of her six-month mission as a UN soldier in Kosovo. She and the other seven guys in the group are sitting and talking. Suddenly one of them says, “Let’s put Åhfelt on her back in the SISU truck and let the locals have some fun”.
– I felt incredibly shocked and insulted, says Emilia. When you are the only girl and you hear that sort of thing and the others are just laughing, you don’t feel so tough, I can promise you.
In the evening she got the group together and pointed out that she did not appreciate that sort of comment. Her protest did not have the desired effect, though.
– One of the guys got angry and said that I had to accept that sort of thing when I was in a man’s world. After that they started to ignore me, they didn’t reply when I spoke to them and didn’t listen when I talked. The whole group behaved in more or less the same way, although some were worse than others. It seemed they had decided to put me in my place and ruin things for me.
Emilia had no chance to defend herself against the systematic harassment which followed. Her self-confidence dropped, she became unsure of herself and had problems talking. Before she had even opened her mouth, she knew that the others would ignore her or take the chance to put her down.
– But the feeling of shame was almost the worst thing – to stand there with your lunch tray in the canteen and not know where to go. That feeling of wanting to belong to a group goes back a long way, I believe, to when we lived as cavemen. To be an outcast was the same as dying, and I think we have inherited that and still feel it.
Told the company officer
Emilia went to her company officer after a few months in Kosovo and told him what was going on. He reacted, but without getting to the bottom of the problem.
– There was a big hullabaloo. The officers talked with the guys in my group and after that the comments stopped and they started to asked me if I wanted to eat lunch with them and so on. But I noticed very clearly it was not genuine, that they had not really changed their attitude towards me.
– The company officer asked me if the comments had stopped. I answered, ”Yes they have, but…” But he did not want to hear the rest. The only thing he seemed interested in was writing a report, saying that the problem was solved.
Determined not to give up
Emilia says that she often cried during her six months in the Balkans but she was determined not to give up her commission. She had wanted to serve on a mission abroad for a long time and she planned to use it as a merit in her future career. Even though she is now glad, nine years later, that she stayed there and did not allow the guys to “win”, she paid a high price. The stress caused by repeated harassment caused a speech disorder, among other things.
– I called home to my mum and told her I had started to stutter, but I didn’t understand why. It took several months after I came home before the stuttering stopped, says Emilia.
After her talk with the company officer she was shown a film about sexual harassment. Why it was only shown to her and not the others in the group she still doesn’t know, but at that point she understood what she had been subjected to.
– When I saw the film I recognized myself in it, and that was a shock. I had never thought that I would be subjected to anything like that.
Emilia says that she consciously kept a low profile in the army. She never told any sex jokes to avoid encouraging that sort of comment, and so that the guys would not be unsure of where her limits were. The harassment which took place in Kosovo had already started during her eight weeks of training at home in Sweden. She had reacted very clearly then, and she felt that the others respected her standpoint. It obviously did not help.
– I don’t think that there is any special way of behaving to avoid the problem. Anybody can be subjected to this kind of harassment, and that goes for both men and women. If it had happened today I would have behaved differently. I would have gone to the officers directly and continued upwards in the hierarchy until somebody took it seriously. But I was so young when it happened and had no experience.
For the last eight years Emilia Åhfelt Dimitriadis has been working as a health and team coach, and amongst other things she works to counteract harassment at work. She manages the training courses for the Armed Forces and has also worked with shipping companies that have had the same problem.
– People are away at sea for long periods, which is a strain in itself. When people are in stress situations the risk of them looking for a scapegoat increases, and they may take out their own stress on others, she says.