Monday, May 16, 2022

The long road to keeping sexual harassment at bay

Advocacy groups say more is needed, included amendments to the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021.

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Cynthia Sara (not her real name) was working as a medical officer in a district office when she caught the attention of an officer stationed at the same branch.

After a while, the man who was married and 20 years older than she was began sending her messages outside of working hours, asking her out on dates.

Although she always declined his offers and reminded him about his wife, he continued to send her text after inappropriate text.

“Hi dr, I want to date you,” they would read. “Hi dr, I want to kiss you, would you like to kiss me back?” “Do you have children already? I can give you one.”

The messages continued for years despite numerous efforts on her part to get him to stop.

Cynthia is just one of many women throughout the country who experience sexual harrassment on a daily basis.

A 2021 survey conducted by the Centre for Governance and Policy Studies in collaboration with the All Women’s Action Malaysia (AWAM) found that more than 600 out of 1,056 respondents (57%) had experienced unwanted touching.

AWAM said separately that it had also received 256 reports of sexual harassment last year, both online and physical.

Worldwide, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women or UN Women estimates that one out of every three women experience sexual harassment.

While existing laws such as the Employment Act and Penal Code contain clauses on sexual harassment, calls have arisen for a standalone bill to protect victims and provide them with a safe avenue to channel their complaints to authorities other than the police.

And while the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill was tabled in Parliament last December, there are concerns that it may not be enough.

“The current bill is reactive and not proactive,” Emillia Shariff of Speak Up Malaysia said.

“We need a comprehensive bill that also covers the prevention of sexual harassment and gives better protection of victims against retaliation if they were to speak up.”

In Cynthia’s case, the harassment continued even after she applied for a transfer to a different office.

“He keeps sending me text messages even at my new place,” she said.

“I just don’t reply anymore. I told him off politely, and even harshly once, but to no avail.”

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, a coalition of civil society organisations working towards gender equality, said the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill must urge companies to take the necessary measures to create safe spaces and to prevent victims from suffering negative repercussions due to their complaints.

A legal obligation like this, according to Daniella from the Association of Women Lawyers Malaysia, would make the biggest difference from the bill in its current form.

“No matter how big or small the organisation is, the bill will enforce them to take reasonable steps in creating sexual harassment-free spaces,” she said.

Asrawati Aslan of AWAM meanwhile said the amended bill would mandate the creation of comprehensive, anti-sexual harassment policies and prevention measures such as awareness training.

It would also make it mandatory for universities and schools to have their own anti-sexual harassment policies.

“With effective implementation, this will reduce the perpetration of sexual harassment in educational institutions in the long run,” she said.

The Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill will be tabled for second reading in the Dewan Rakyat this month.

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