Thursday, June 17, 2021

Give students a way to protest sexual harassment, experts urge

They say students resort to unconventional methods such as the National School Walkout Day due to a lack of action when they do use the proper channels.

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Experts have called for an appropriate platform for students to express their views following the move by several youth organisations to arrange a so-called National School Walkout Day in reaction to issues of sexual harassment at school.

The move had sparked criticism by some who said it encouraged students to play truant.

But experts who spoke to MalaysiaNow said students had resorted to such unconventional methods of protest as they were not taken seriously when they went through the proper channels.

Sociologist Syarifah Fatimah Al Zahrah Al Attas from the International Islamic University Malaysia said the responsibility for speaking up against sexual harassment in school shouldn’t be on students alone as they often hold a less powerful position in the school hierarchy.

Instead, she said, teachers and parents should provide students with avenues to be heard.

“If you feel like walking out of school is not the right way to protest, what alternatives are you providing for them?

“If we don’t want them to protest, show them the options where their voices are heard and proper action is taken,” she said.

In any case, she said, it is the responsibility of adults to ensure that schools are a safe place for students.

She added that school authorities should not get defensive when such issues are raised by students as this would only send the message that these issues should be hidden instead of addressed.

“In the case of children being sexually harassed, if we don’t take it seriously then we have not done our responsibility to protect them.

“One case is already too many,” she said.

Karen Lai, programme director at the Women’s Centre for Change Penang, said students should continue speaking up for their rights even if their voices are not acknowledged.

She said silencing victims is often a tactic used to prevent the issue from being further discussed and that eventually, no appropriate action would be taken against perpetrators.

“If we don’t want them to protest, show them the options where their voices are heard and proper action is taken.”

She added that teachers should also speak up for the safety of their students.

“Teachers need to find the courage to speak up,” she said. “We are educators responsible for shaping young minds and their views.

“If we don’t speak up for students, it sends a terrible message that the victims need to be blamed and the status quo defended even when there are offensive remarks.

“We are correct to be outraged,” she added.

The National School Walkout Day had called for students and teachers nationwide to absent themselves from one school day or class period.

Shreya Menon Krisnan and Adillah Zaki, two of the youths who co-organised the movement, said they had done so to show solidarity with the victims.

Shreya said the protest was in order to show the need for an immediate change in the school system, so that perpetrators would be held accountable instead of the victims being silenced.

“I think we need to realise today that these students did use the proper channels,” she said. “If you’ve read closely what has happened, you may realise that it’s the system that protects the malfeasance of these harassers.”

She said the protest was to make those in the system listen to the survivors and realise that offences committed should not be swept under the rug.

Adillah meanwhile said the proper channels are often misused, leading to a lack of action.

“Personally, I believe the protesting method matters because it needs to be safe for its participants especially if you’re involving children and it is during a pandemic.

“This is why National School Walkout Day repeatedly emphasised the child’s safety including their emotional and mental well-being.

“A ‘wrong way to protest’, in my opinion, would be one that carelessly puts participants and bystanders in danger.”

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