Addressing sexual harassment at work

No to sexual harrassment

Thumbs up to Catherine Kunje, an employee of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) for having the courage to share her personal experience on sexual harassment in the workplace, an issue most survivors would not dare talk about.  

Sexual harassment and abuse is happening not only at MBC, but in other companies, organisations and even in our homes.  The Malawi Gender Equality Act defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The act requires all institutions to take issues of sexual harassment seriously. While the labour law does not explicitly address issues of sexual harassment, the Gender Equality Act outlines how cases are to be dealt with. Despite progress made as a country in enacting laws against gender-based violence including sexual harassment, a huge gap remains in their knowledge and implementation.

Research shows that most cases of sexual harassment are not reported. A policy brief by Malawi Irish Consortium (2019), for example, revealed a lot of incidents of GBV in the work place that are not reported to formal institutions like the courts and the police, including within the institution and work place grievance structures. Some reasons for not reporting include fear of retribution, reprisal or loss of job in the case of reporting the perpetrators. The fear of losing marriage was evidently another reason workplace GBV cases were not recorded and reported. The other major reason was a lack of reporting mechanisms within the organisations, HR departments not well equipped to handle such issues and having no internal policies to safeguard staff from such.

Sexual harassment acts are also “normalised” within the society and the workplace. For example, in my interaction with men around this subject, they think whistling at a woman because she is well dressed is a compliment. Some believe that women want to be chased and would persistently request for sexual favours despite several denials from the woman. These acts account for sexual harassment. Malawi has also seen a rise in sexual harassment in learning institutions by lecturers and teachers to students, the famous “sex for grades.” However, these learning institutions do not have reporting mechanisms specifically for GBV cases and usually there is lack of substantive evidence to back up the claims. There is low reporting on these issues as well because offenders are rarely taken to book, giving the impression administration do not take such issues seriously. In the education sector, the teachers are usually transferred to another school in a remote area where they are likely to abuse more students.

There is need to ensure enforcement of laws in all the institutions in Malawi starting with sexual harassment policies across all institutions. The policies must have clear confidential and safe reporting procedures and consequences of such behaviour which should be followed to the end. There is also need to build the capacity of police, labour relations officers and prosecutors in handling such cases with professionalism, such that people in informal workplaces like domestic workers, small business operators and those in agricultural markets or small businesses would report directly to these offices.

Malawians also need to read and appreciate our laws and claim their right to protection once violated. Furthermore, there is need to publicise the national hotline service (5600) in Malawi to adequately assist victims with psychosocial support and related services.

We hope that the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, the Ombudsman and all other key stakeholders will investigate all the reported cases and conclude them until all abusers are punished. A new Malawi should not condone sexual harassment in the workplace. Job opportunities, salary raise, and promotion should not be in exchange for sex but on merit. Finally, media houses need to ensure zero tolerance to sexual harassment. Victims must speak up, as things will not be corrected by keeping quiet. In view of the lack of knowledge of the existing laws on sexual harassment, there is need to empower people in the workplaces through training on these issues. Such training could target interns and volunteers as they may also be the victims of sexual harassment. The media has a role to play to advocate for zero tolerance to sexual harassment.

*The article was co-written by Pauline Mbukwa and Regina Matengo. Matengo is a gender specialist currently working as Gender and Protection Advisor with Care South Sudan. She is a trainer and likes to comment on gender issues.