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Sad Story Behind Beautiful Smiles of Malawi’s Female Hospitality Workers

An illustration of violence against female workers in the hospitality industry An illustration of violence against female workers in the hospitality industry source Internet

The hospitality industry is associated with peace and calm and fun. It is in the hotels and lodges where life is associated with tranquility and enjoyment – a near taste of the world hereafter.

The hospitality industry is largely associated with smiles, good food and happiness. But in this special assignment I find that behind all that sophistication, pomp and apparent sacred hospitality services, there are women in tears: tears of payments under the minimum wage; tears of sexual harassment perpetuated by both bosses and male guests.

Lake Malawi is also referred to as the calendar lake because it stretches 365 km from north to south; and because it’s widest point measures 54 kilometers from east to west.

British missionary and explorer Dr. David Livingstone also nicknamed the lake “The Lake of Stars,” because of the glows of lamps of fishermen on boats at night, resembling the stars in the night sky. Everything here appears with heavenly peace. Of course, until the women start speaking.

“This one happened to me, when I was doing an internship, one of our supervisors told me that I should have sex with him and he would recommend my permanent employment” says one woman I met.

For purposes of preserving her dignity, I’ll call her Carolyn. She works at a lodge in the Lakeshore district of Mangochi.

She says her supervisor nearly forced her into having sex with him. She says the boss said he would recommend her for permanent employment if she gave in. Her supervisor sits on interview panels at the institution.

Carolyn is but one of the numerous women suffering in silence in this way in the hospitality industry in Malawi. I found that waitresses and room service providers, specifically, if they are not sexually harassed, they lose jobs.

In most workplaces where this happens, men in managerial positions and male guests take advantage of poverty among most of the junior female workers. The majority are not permanent employees. They also have huge responsibilities at home. Some give in to sexual exploitation, just to survive. But they hate it, I could tell from the look of their faces and the tone in their voices.

At a hotel in Lilongwe city, I met another woman I shall call Ruth. She says she once rejected sexual advances from a guest. The guest wanted to fondle her breaches. Ironically, her bosses took issue with her and threatened her with dismissal.

Ruth says her bosses wanted her to give in to the guest’s advances to play with her breasts and buttocks.

The other day, a guest called for room service. She says she found him naked in the room and he invited her to bed! She resisted and went away.

“In my case, one day when I went to get bills from a guest in his room, he said I should hug him first if I were to get the bill, when I saw that this was not on, I called a male workmate to serve the guest. He became angry with me,” narrates Ruth.

Guests are never wrong?

Reporting such matters to authorities in the hospitality industry is usually in vain. Guests are the bosses. It is actually the worker who is found at fault. At times, female workers resisting sexual advances from male guests are punished for being rude to clients.

At another hotel, I met Mercy. This is also not her real name.

She recalls how after rejecting sexual advances from her former bosses, she and her two workmates missed an opportunity for promotion.

“These things happen, I remember two of my colleagues lost their jobs after refusing to have sex with one of our bosses,” says Mercy.

She finds this enslaving, especially that the industry is flooded with male managers and supervisors.

The problems that female workers in the hospitality industry face have been presented to other bodies.

Shakespeare Sesani is General Secretary for the Hotel Workers Union. He acknowledges that female workers in the hospitality industry are going through a hell of a time.

Sesani insists that sexual harassment should be criminalized in the work place.

“What we need is to revisit the conditions of service to look at them and criminalize sexual harassment thing,” says Sesani.

Justin Dzimkambani chairs the Tourism Council of Malawi. He is also President of the Tourism Industry Professionals Association. He agrees that there are glaring gaps that need addressing.

“The issues that have been raised relate to various sectors of the industry, and also relate to how policies of different organizations have been set. Our current laws are outdated and we need to change them,” says Dzinkambani.

The Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture plans engaging the ministries of gender and labour to find a lasting solution to the problem, says Chauncy Simwaka, the Principal Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife and Culture.

“We have taken note of it but since these are labour issues, we are going to engage relevant stakeholders” says Simwaka.

The Gender Equality Act of 2013 makes it a government obligation to ensure that employers develop and implement policies and procedures that would eliminate sexual harassment in the work place.

Authorities have knowledge

The government of Malawi has put tourism as one of the key priority sectors of economic growth. As such, the reports of sexual harassment in the industry would likely derail the efforts. To appreciate what the government is doing about this, I met Vera Kamtukule, shortly before she was removed as Minister of Tourism.

She told me the authorities are working on the means for the enforcement of the Gender Equality Act and the minimum wage.

“So, the constitution of the republic provides that women have the right and full protection of the law and the women have the right not to be discriminated against at work, in a business set up, or based on their gender. It is therefore unacceptable for any employer or guest to demand sexual favours from the women,” said Kamtukule.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) acknowledges receipt of complaints regarding sexual harassment from the hospitality industry and encourages more people to step forward with such cases.

“We have received some complaints, but you know the hospitality industry is very big and we may not know who you talked to and which specific complaints, but the commission receives a lot of complaints,” says commissioner Chiyamwaka, member of the gender and women’s rights committee at MHRC.

Gender rights expert Beatrice Mateyu feels there is a need for a systemic investigation into the allegations.

“We have been hearing a lot of stories about sexual harassment in many places, including in hotels and lodges, we have tried to intervene but I think there is a need for a more systematic approach to be taken to deal with the problem” said Mateyu.

The situation female workers find themselves trapped in in the hospitality industry calls for swift action, this was my conclusion after hearing many of the sad stories that lie behind the beautiful faces and smiles of these women.

Not only for the respect of the Gender Equality Act, no, but also Goal Number 5 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which calls for achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls across the globe, the authorities must act promptly to preserve the dignity of our women in the workplace.

The genuine beauty of the Lake Stars should reflect in the smiles of women in the hospitality industry to make it an honorable money spinner for this country, also called the Warm Heart of Africa.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01/03/2023

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