Business has a responsibility to deal with GBV and harassment in the workplace…

Media attention regarding gender-based violence, including unwanted sexual advances from a number of high-profile individuals in their work environments, has culminated in an all-out war on GBV in South Africa.

The #MeToo movement, a social movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault, followed by the horrendous violence South Africa has witnessed in recent days, have led to more attention the world over on the abuse of women. Businesses need to pay attention to this in the workplace too, in the form of sexual harassment.

With our own horrific history of violence against women, South Africa can well do with a focus on how we deal with cases of sexual violence, including sexual harassment in the workplace. Legislation makes provision for this – in the Employment Equity Act, read with the Code of Good Practice in the Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases in the Workplace.

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The legislation is there, but the enforcement may not be

“Unfortunately, while we have some reasonably good legislation in place regarding workplace sexual harassment, the enforcement of the legislation has not been good enough,” says Deepa Vallabh, Director – Corporate and Commercial at CMS/RM Partners South Africa, an African commercial law firm and member of a top 5 global law firm.

According to Vallabh, “Just one occurrence of any unsolicited conduct of a sexual nature that is directed at an employee constitutes possible sexual harassment.

“It does not have to be repeated, nor does it have to be totally overt conduct, to fall within the definition. Employers should include this sort of explanation in their HR policies and in education and cultural compliance for all staff.”

Businesses must create an environment in which women feel safe to come forward

Vallabh strongly believes that the issue of poor enforcement lies both with the organs of the State, such as the police and prosecution services, as well as with the private sector.

“Too often, company executives, management and Human Resources (HR) managers do not respond suitably to an allegation by a staff member of sexual harassment,” she explains. In many instances, corporates have not created environments that allow these allegations to surface or to safely allow women to come forward when victimised in this manner.

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Support is critical

Where an employee makes a complaint regarding sexual harassment, the employee may face significant psychological damage if they feel that they are not being supported. Obviously, this situation may impact negatively on a person’s productivity.

Equally significant is that the employer could face legal action for its failure to act, and there could be a reputational risk to the employer, especially if the matter were to reach the media’s attention.

Recent media reports have highlighted both the appalling manner in which certain corporates have responded to such allegations and the reputational damage that ensued thereafter.

Women play an important role in the economy and should feel safe in the workplace

In a society seeking to redress the imbalances of the past, South African employers are encouraged to provide opportunities for women to participate more meaningfully in the economy.

“To achieve this, however,” explains Vallabh, “women need to feel comfortable and secure in the workplace. In an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated, how does one achieve empowerment for women? The two are linked and therefore one cannot speak of meaningful upliftment and empowerment of women yet ignore what is required to create environments where sexual harassment is not tolerated.”

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Consequences of harassment must be harsh

Vallabh believes that both legislation and enforcement need to be strengthened which will potentially bring these issues within the fold of better governance structures within organisations.

“Companies have an obligation to treat this issue seriously, and every person inside a business with a responsibility to act must be held to account. Failure to carry out this responsibility should result in sanction by the employer, be it through the dismissal of senior staff who turned a blind eye, or through the issuing of warnings. In addition, anyone guilty of sexual conduct at a firm should never be permitted to serve as a director of a company or hold a senior management executive position.”

It is unthinkable that, in today’s world, corporates and other businesses can allow practices such as sexual harassment to continue.

Hopefully, the sentiment represented by the #MeToo movement will have the desired impact on the South African business environment and we will begin to see sexual harassment in the workplace being treated as a serious problem that should not be tolerated.


SAPS Emergency Services 10111
Toll-free Crime Stop number 086 00 10111
GBV Command Centre Contact the 24-hour Gender Based Violence Command Centre toll-free number 0800 428 428 to report abuse
STOP Gender Violence Helpline Tel: 0800 150 150/ *120*7867#
South African Police Service Report all cases of rape, sexual assault or any form of violence to a local police station or call the toll-free Crime Stop number: 086 00 10111
Legal Aid South Africa Call the toll-free Legal Aid Advice Line 0800110 110 for free legal aid if you cannot afford one
Commission for Gender Equality Report Gender Discrimination and Abuse: 0800 007 709
South African Human Rights Commission Call 011 877 3600 to lodge a complaint about human rights violations.
Domestic violence Helpline Stop Women Abuse: 0800 150 150
AIDS Helpline 0800 012 322
The Warrior Project FREE legal helpline for victims of domestic abuse: 0860 333 353
People Opposed to Woman Abuse(Powa), Tel: 011 642 4345
Child Welfare South Africa, Tel: 074 080 8315
Childline South Africa, Tel: 0800 055 555
Families South Africa (Famsa), Tel: 011 975 7106/7
Tears Foundation, Free SMS helpline: *134*7355#, Tel: 010 590 5920
The Trauma Centre, Tel: 021 465 7373
Thuthuzela Care Centres