Sexual harassment destroys lives

In this latest case, sexual violence ended up destroying an artist’s dream career; in Pauline Dembska’s case, it ended up killing her outright

It is regrettable to note that, in response to the recent sexual harassment scandal at the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, the two political parties have once again resorted to trading cheap partisan blows.

The Nationalist opposition was very quick to demand “that the top brass at the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra be held responsible following a case of sexual harassment involving a female member….”

But when the orchestra’s CEO Sigmund Mifsud was arrested, three days later, and charged with “having carried out moral or psychological violence by suborning others [the victim] from testifying on the crime”, the PN promptly changed its political target, by calling for the resignation of Culture Minister Owen Bonnici instead.

On his part, Bonnici claimed when he was approached by the victim on 6 September, he had directed her to the Gender-based Violence Commissioner: “which is the institution best-placed to deal with these issues. […] I am informed that the commissioner followed up on the case…”

Technically, the Minister has a point. According to the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE)’s ‘Code of Practice for Sexual Harassment’ – published in 2005 - the correct procedure in such cases is for employers to: “ensure that employees are adequately informed about the possibility of seeking redress and support from a third party, such as a Trade Union or the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality in cases where such complaints do in fact arise.”

Naturally, there is no mention of the Commission for Gender-Based Violence: because that was established a year later, in 2006. All the same, however, within the country’s present institutional framework, the CGV certainly is the best-equipped to handle such complaints.

Moreover, it would not have been very helpful for the Culture Minister to intervene as directly, as to personally fire the alleged offender himself (instead of leaving justice to the law-courts).

Once again, the Code of Practice makes it abundantly clear that the responsibility for warding against sexual violence, at the place of work, ultimately lies with the immediate employer – in both private, and public sectors.

Political responsibility is, of course, another matter; and certainly a government minister would have to resign, if found guilty of having ‘covered up’ for any particular case. But – assuming that Bonnici is being truthful, with his claim to have informed the relevant authorities on 6 September – that does not appear to be the situation.

Nonetheless, Bonnici did not stop there. In Parliament yesterday, he tried to turn the tables on Zahra, by questioning whether the PN MP had known about the MPO sexual harassment case sooner than she was letting on. “If you knew, you also had the same responsibility to act,” Bonnici insisted.

Apart from being extremely childish, this exchange simply disregards the actual issue at hand. For what also emerges from this case, is that that our institutional responses – however ‘correct’ they may be, in terms of procedure – did not have any real effect on the outcome.

Despite the existence of a ‘code of practice’ which specifies exactly what steps should be followed… the victim herself ended up having to quit her position at the MPO, after having allegedly made several reports to the management. Much worse, the management’s reaction was to (allegedly) attempt to stifle the accusation, and discourage the victim from proceeding with her complaint.

In the end, this ongoing abuse – which the perpetrator later admitted - lasted from May 2019, until last month; when it should really have been nipped in the bud, the moment the victim plucked up the courage to come forward with her accusations.

Naturally, it is now up to the law-courts to determine culpability, for this sordid state of affairs. But the incident clearly illustrates that our current laws and practices, very clearly do not afford any genuine protection to the victims of gender-based crime.

And while it is altogether easy to point fingers of accusation at the authorities, for failing to act; we must also confront the fact that this latest manifestation is but one example out of many, of a much deeper underlying malaise known as ‘misogyny’ (of which this case is hardly the latest – or worst - example).

As Prof. Marceline Naudi, of the University’s Gender Studies department, had reminded us after the horrific murder of Pauline Dempska in January 2022: “Violence against women is, in fact, a continuum. It starts with: ‘Aw, gisem!’… and, at the clean other end of the spectrum, it ends in femicide.

“Somewhere along the same line, however, you will also find intimate partner violence; physical violence; sexual violence; emotional violence; harassment; stalking; stranger assault… you know: all the things that add up to violence, in one form or another, targeting women.”

In this latest case, sexual violence ended up destroying an artist’s dream career; in Pauline Dembska’s case, it ended up killing her outright.

Clearly, then, we are dealing with a social problem that has the aptitude to destroy people’s lives. As such, it would be far more helpful, if Malta’s politicians were to direct their efforts towards addressing the real underlying issues – through education, and a reform of existing policies – rather than simply targeting each other, as usual.