Malawi's human rights commission recommends compensation for women sexually harassed by country's broadcasting boss

The women of Malawi had barely time to digest a landmark high court judgment ordering a company to pay ‘aggravated damages’ in a workplace sexual harassment matter, when a second, similar, high profile matter hit the news. This time it was a report from the Malawi Human Rights Commission which found the CEO of the country’s broadcasting corporation had sexually harassed women on the staff and recommended tough measures in response.

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The Malawi Human Rights Commission member who wrote the new report, Stella Twea, heads the commission’s gender and women’s rights’ committee. Could that help explain the report’s concern to ensure that the women involved are not named and that their identities cannot be established? It’s a feature of the report that’s impossible to miss: right at the start, Twea notes that the names of the complainants in the matter are pseudonyms. The names ‘are not real and do not reflect any person with such names’, she writes.

According to the report, problems at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation first became obvious in July 2020, when a woman employed there alleged on her Facebook page that she and other women at the MBC had been sexually harassed by the then CEO of the corporation, Aubrey Sumbuleta.

Urged to take up the matter, the MHRC agreed to investigate. Although eight women complained about Sumbuleta, only four were willing to testify before the commission. The main reason put up by the others was that they had not informed their spouses of what had happened and so if the matter were to be made public, their marriages would be negatively affected.

‘Quasi-judicial’

Of the four who agreed to participate, two were still working at the MBC and two had left the corporation citing difficult conditions created by Sumbuleta.

As part of the investigation, the MHRC set up a ‘quasi-judicial hearing’ where the four women and Sumbuleta were present. They told their side of the story and each had the opportunity to rebut and cross-examine.

During the hearings, an early instance of sexual harassment came to light. Dating back to February 2010, it involved a written complaint about Sumbuleta made by the woman concerned to the director general for whom she worked. He in turn referred the matter to a senior official at the minister of information and it was then referred ‘to the office of the President and the cabinet’.

Hostile

Nothing ever came of these high-level meetings, however. Sumbuleta continued in office and was even further promoted, ending up as CEO of the corporation. With that promotion, the woman who had complained about him found the working environment so hostile that she resigned.

A second woman also quit her job at the corporation, citing unbearable pressure from Sumbuleta arising from sexual harassment. A third repeatedly missed out on promotions, something she blamed on the fact that she refused to give in to Sumbuleta’s ‘advances’.

In the case of the fourth woman, Sumbuleta characterised theirs as a ‘love relationship’ that began in 1997. That would have made the woman just 15 at the time. In her evidence it became clear that she saw things rather differently, claiming sexual harassment by Sumbuleta, and she gave graphic details of how he had behaved towards her. When she, too, refused to give in to his sexual demands, she was removed from her senior position.

Retaliation

Apart from these factual findings, the commission found that Sumbuleta’s sexual harassment had breached the Gender Equality Act, along with a number of constitutional provisions. He had engaged in ‘systemic retaliation’ against all four for their refusal to give in to his demands and repeatedly subjected them to unfair labour practices.

In addition, since he clearly acted with impunity, there was no system in place that could effectively hold him accountable for his actions. And, in relation to the 15 year old, his behaviour amounted, at the least, to indecent assault of a minor.

What was to be done about the situation, particularly since Sumbuleta had already been suspended from office? The commission recommended that the four women should be helped to sue Sumbuleta for the sexual harassment they suffered. The two women who felt forced to quit their jobs were to be reinstated at the level they would have reached if they had not had to break their employment because of the CEO’s behaviour.

Compensate

The corporation is also to compensate the four women because the MBC did not have an effective workplace policy in place to deal with sexual harassment. The commission further added that the four women should consider taking the MBC to court with a damages claim.

Twea’s report said the police should investigate criminal charges against Sumbuleta both for sexual harassment and for indecent assault of a minor, and that the commission would follow up on the police investigation after three months.

As for the MBC, the commission said it should immediately finalise its sexual harassment policy and ensure that it meets international standards as well as complying with domestic law. Again, the commission will ‘expect an update’ on progress by the end of July. The MBC is also to ensure that the Board, management and staff all have training on sexual harassment in the workplace.

‘Highly engaged citizenry’

Commenting on the commission’s report, Malawian lawyer Sarai Chisala said it had to be seen in conjunction with the recent high court decision that held a company liable for ‘aggravated damages’ because an ineffective sexual harassment policy allowed the woman concerned to continue suffering at the hands of her abuser.

Chisala, a human rights lawyer who runs a social and gender justice research unit and a legal clinic, said the two decisions marked ‘a significant shift in tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace.’ Moreover, she added, the decisions were taken ‘against the backdrop of a highly engaged citizenry’ – this appears to be a reference to increased political awareness and activity in Malawi related to the recent change in government.

* 'A matter of justice', Legalbriefs, 6 April 2021