Sexual harassment stats are hiding the rampant abuse on the Maltese workplace

Why have only four reports of sexual harassment been filed in as many years in Malta? Women's rights experts say the fear of reporting abuse is cultural

“Sexual harassment at the workplace is rampant… a lot accept it as cultural or as something one has to deal with.”
“Sexual harassment at the workplace is rampant… a lot accept it as cultural or as something one has to deal with.”

Sexual harassment at the workplace is “rampant”, women’s rights experts agree, yet only four such cases were reported in the past four years.

A 2014 survey had found that one in five women are victims of sexual harassment, with only 8% reporting the case to the police or the company. 

Lawyer Roberta Lepre, former director of Victim Support Malta, said that very few victims found the courage to lodge a complaint.

“Sexual harassment at the workplace is rampant… a lot accept it as cultural or as something one has to deal with,” she told MaltaToday. 

Sexual harassment has made headlines following numerous accusations leveled against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein by actresses and others in the film industry.

In what is now known as ‘The Harvey Weinstein Effect’, other famous stars including actor Kevin Spacey and filmmaker James Toback have been accused of indecent behaviour towards fellow actors, associates and clients. 

Powerful men all over the world have also been exposed, and the phenomenon has swept into the political arena. The ‘Westminster sleaze scandal’ led to the resignation of the UK defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon and Tory Whip Charles Pincher, the suspension of Charlie Elphicke and the launch of inquiries into other government officials. 

In Malta, earlier this week, a former chief nurse at Mater Dei Hospital faced charges over sexually explicit messages sent to one of his subordinates in 2015. 

Equality Commissioner Renee Laiviera, of the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE), said that Maltese people do not often report sexual harassment at the workplace. 

She said that only a total of four complaints related to sexual harassment at the workplace were placed between 2013 and 2016, while a fifth was dropped soon after being filed.

Those four complaints were filed by women.

In a survey published in 2014 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, it was evident that 32% of participants across the EU28 experienced sexual harassment from somebody within their employment context such as a colleague, supervisor or a client. 

“In Malta one in every five women respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the 12 months before the interview,” Laiviera said. 

The survey found that 35% of participants kept the incident to themselves, while only 4% talked to an employer at their workplace and another 4% reported it to the police. 

Lepre said that people only report a problem when there is an escalation, or when it causes them a lot of anxiety, to the point that they can no longer function properly in their professional environment. 

“Usually, victims are not after punishment or compensation, but just want to be able to go to work without having to face fear or anxiety,” she said. 

Contrary to common belief, sexual harassment is not only experienced by women. Men too, fall victims to sexual harassment but do not often complain. 

Laiviera said that gender stereotypes on the roles and behaviours ascribed to women and men may contribute to under-reporting of sexual harassment, particularly by men. 

“Such stereotypes may amplify feelings of embarrassment, beliefs that men are not victims of sexual harassment, and respective victimisation,” she said.

Laiviera and Lepre agreed that sexual harassment could happen within any work environment. Workers feel more comfortable sharing their experiences in an environment with a clear policy and adequate procedures against this kind of harassment in the workplace. 

“From an employers’ perspective, more could be done in terms of communicating their policies to staff, monitoring such policies and providing adequate remedies,” Lepre said. 

“I feel that not enough is being done in terms of law enforcement - deterrents need to be applied in order to send the message that this kind of behaviour is indeed unacceptable and that there will be consequences.”

The NCPE has carried out various initiatives to address gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the workplace. They award the Equality Mark Certification to companies that safeguard gender equality at the workplace and take measures to prevent sexual harassment through their equality and sexual harassment policies and their equality representative. 

At present there are 80 companies with over 21,300 workers who have received this award.  

NCPE highly encourages victims of sexual harassment to report their cases to the relevant authorities, including to NCPE itself, in order to seek redress and to further safeguard their rights. 

The NCPE’s Complaints Form can be downloaded from its website – www.equality.gov.mt 

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