By BETTY YEOH
THE #MeToo campaign on sexual harassment has raised more awareness now than ever before.
The trade unionists who negotiated with the employers to include in their Collective Agreements (the terms and conditions that are agreed upon by Employer and Union Representatives of a Company, including the salary scale) clauses on combating sexual harassment in the workplace were one of the first people to talk about sexual harassment.
It was noted from cases at the workplaces, the way most survivors of sexual harassment dealt with their ordeal was to keep quiet or just leave their jobs. There have been cases in the past that had taken place in the public sphere too. There was a case of a coach for hurdles who was found guilty of molesting one of the women athletes.
Even in our august house of the Parliament, during the previous administration, some of the Members of Parliament (MPs) faced sexual harassment.
An example was the case of MP Bung Mokhtar commenting the then MP for Batu Gajah (Fong Poh Kuan) “also leaked every month”, a reference to female menstrual cycle when commenting on rain leaking through the Parliament’s roof.
Some MPs were also alleged to have sexually harassed women journalists, yet women journalists were called to dress up appropriately.
Patriarchal power, privileging of men and permission of society are some root causes of violence against women including sexual harassment. Victim-blaming is one of the reasons why victims do not speak up and suffer in silence.
What has taken place to address the issue of sexual harassment?
Since 1985, the early awareness on sexual harassment was initially raised through talks and seminars by the Joint Action Group against Violence Against Women (JAG-VAW). These progressed even to schools by All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) and National Council of Women’s Organization (NCWO).
AWAM and Women Centre for Change (WCC) continued to work on a proposed sexual harassment legislation for the JAG-VAW. The proposed draft legislation was submitted to the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) in 2001. It faced strong objections from the Malaysian Employers’ Federation than to have the draft legislation presented to Parliament.
In 2012, the Ministry of Human Resources (MoHR) amended the Employment Act by including Part 15A, Section 81 to combat sexual harassment at the workplace. It must be highlighted that this section is open to all persons who have a contract of/for service, not limited to those earning below RM2,000.
However, it does not cover Sabah and Sarawak as the Employment Ordinance is used there.
Where can people go when faced with sexual harassment?
In the area of sexual harassment, both the civil society and the government have played a role in creating awareness on the issue and how to combat it.
A Training Manual on Combating Sexual Harassment at Workplace (written by AWAM and Women’s Development Centre) has been used by AWAM for conducting training on the issue of sexual harassment. Trainings carried out were not only to corporate companies, but to other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and institutions of education.
In addition, AWAM has a services component that supports survivors of sexual harassment through counselling and empowering them with information on their rights and the laws available.
Similarly, the Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) and WCC have helplines to support women faced with sexual harassment as well as training on this issue.
The Association of Women’s Lawyers did a survey in the legal fraternity and recognising that sexual harassment also takes place among lawyers, have also been active in raising awareness amongst the legal fraternity.
To cater to emerging forms of sexual harassment such as cyber sexual harassment, there are groups such as People against Cyber Threats and harassments (PeopleACT), initiated by the Malaysian Centre on Constitutional Human Rights to look into the issues and advocate for ways to address the issues of cyber harassment and sexual harassment.
This included a proposed bill on cyber harassment and sexual harassment, as well as a survival kit which supports people who face such cyber-violence. The organisation Empower had a study on cyber sexual harassment on women, providing insights into the issue.
There are also other NGOs such as the Good Shepard Sisters, Sabah Women’s Resources Organisation (SAWO), Sarawak Women for Women (SWWS), Johor Women’s League (JEWEL) and many NGOs which provide awareness raising training and support services.
On the government side, the Industrial Relation department of MoHR conducts training for the corporate sector too.
How do we go forward?
The survivors of sexual harassment have often remained silent and this had enabled perpetrators of sexual harassment to continue their actions. Supporting and empowering women is the key for survivors to speak up on the issue of sexual harassment.
In Penang, WCC had supported six women who faced sexual harassment in the Copthorne Hotel, Penang until their case was settled. The recent case of Case of Mohd Ridzwan Abdul Razak vs Asmah Hj Mohd Nor (Federal Court) more popularly known as the “Tabung Haji” case opened up a new area in legal redress via Tort of Sexual Harassment.
It showed that the individual knows what sexual harassment is and speaks up on it. This is why it is very important that information on sexual harassment is shared with society as it does not only happen at workplaces but in the public spaces.
Into the future
Towards the end of 2017, KPWKM requested Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG-GE) to review the 2002 proposed legislation on sexual harassment.
AWAM, representing JAG-GE, took the lead to form a committee to review the JAG proposed sexual harassment legislation.
Currently, representatives of JAG-GE, together with representatives of NCWO, and several other NGOs in the law reform committee are revisiting the JAG 2002 sexual harassment draft legislation and updating to make it more relevant.
Once completed, it will be presented to the KPWKM. With the change of a new leadership in Malaysia, hopefully, we will finally see a standalone Act against sexual harassment enacted in the near future.
The society also needs to be aware that they have a responsibility to ensure that the environment, whether in public or private space is free from sexual harassment.
Leaders, both male and female leadership, of organisations can create safe space and policy to combat this menace. This includes bringing justice to the survivors, even if the perpetrators are women and to ensure sexual harassment is dealt with without fear or favour when it happens.
It is most crucial for individuals faced with sexual harassment, not to blame themselves but to seek support and to speak up. You can do something and make a difference!
Betty Yeoh is one of the founding members of AWAM and is highly trained in matters dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace for corporate sectors. She is also a strong advocate to build the capacity of policy makers and service providers on combating violence against women and gender sensitisation. To get in touch with her, please write in, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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