Right's activists are collectively calling for an urgent review of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021 to address several critical gaps in the proposed bill before it is passed as a law. The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, Engender Consultancy and Young Women Making Change are calling for the bill to be reviewed by the Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Women and Children Affairs and Social Development as well as all members of Parliament.
While the groups recognise and appreciate the government’s efforts to honour its commitment in passing the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021, there are still significant gaps in the bill that need to be addressed.
Since the 1990’s, women’s groups have engaged extensively with the government, including the drafting of the bill. The first reading of the Bill was held on Dec 15, 2021, and the second second reading was at the first parliamentary meeting on Feb 28, 2022.
A memorandum with recommendations to amend the bill, including the addition of new sections, was presented to the government and the public. These amendments will ensure that the legislation is comprehensive and prioritises the rights and well-being of victims of sexual harassment.
All Women’s Action Society services manager Kok Lee Lian says that there needs to be proper redress and prevention mechanisms to protect victims of sexual harassment.
Protect the victims
Address victimisation of those who experience and report harassment. Victimisation happens when the complainant is treated badly or faces negative consequences for making a complaint.
“Victimisation is common when perpetrators retaliate against survivors of sexual harassment for reporting them or intimidate them to prevent them from reporting the crime. This is detrimental and can lead to underreporting and also re-traumatises survivors,” says Kok.
“For example, a professor may threaten to mark down a student for making a sexual harassment complaint or supporting another student’s claim. The Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill should have a clause protecting complainants and to ensure they feel safe in reporting their experiences,” she says.
Provisions on victimisation (Section A.4 in the memorandum) must be included.
“The sexual harassment bill should have a clause to protect complainants and ensure they feel safe in reporting such incidences of sexual harassment. Complainants might not just be the survivors. Even bystanders or third party witnesses who take action against the incident and make a formal complaint, also need to be protected to prevent bullying and harassment.
“Laws against victimisation have been implemented in other countries like Australia, United Kingdom and the United States of America but have yet to be implemented in Malaysia,” she says.
Organisations need to be on board
According to Kok, the organisational duties to prevent and address sexual harassment (Section A.3 in the memorandum) must be included.
Organisations can extend beyond businesses to universities, schools, public service providers, malls and others. The 2020 National Survey & Roundtable Report on Addressing Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces in Malaysia reported that 58.6% (383) of men and women have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces including public transport such as buses, trains and taxis (including bus and taxi stands); parking lots, canteens, lobbies, reception areas in shopping malls/areas and on the road. Existing laws do not adequately address this.
“The Employment Act provisions are limited and not strong enough, and there are no laws covering universities, schools, public transport, malls, and other areas where sexual harassment occurs,” says Kok.
“While the tribunal where survivors can report sexual harassment is extremely important, sexual harassment doesn’t only happen between two individuals. It usually happens within an organisational setting such as a workplace, university, school or public transport.
“Including organisational duties means survivors will have the option of addressing harassment at the organisation level before going to an external tribunal. For example, a student may be more comfortable reporting harassment to student affairs, before going to an external tribunal,” she says.
Kok says the bill should specify steps that employers, universities, public transport operators, and other organisation administrators must take in order to prevent and address sexual harassment in their respective organisations. These can include prohibiting sexual harassment, mandating basic training on sexual harassment, and adopting a mechanism to respond to complaints.
Extend the definition of sexual harassment
The definition of sexual harassment in the bill (Section B.2 in the memorandum) must be extended. The definition should recognise instances where the harassment is not directed at a particular individual but creates an offensive, hostile, or intimidating environment.
For example, situations where a supervisor often makes sexual jokes and innuendos to subordinates can cause an offensive, hostile, or intimidating environment, which affects an individuals’ ability to function at work, says Kok.
“Allowing limited channels of redress against sexual harassment is a denial of the fundamental right of every person to equality before the law and equal protection of the law.”
“Sexual harassment can occur anywhere and it happens due to the disparity of power between people. It is a violation of human dignity and a form of gender-based discrimination which has the ability to incapacitate people from their daily lives, like making them too traumatised to carry on working or going to school,” she says.
“It is imperative that our lawmakers commit to passing a comprehensive, victim-centric legislation against sexual harassment. Otherwise, there will be loopholes in protection and redress for victims, and this defeats the purpose of such legislation,” she adds.
The bill is collectively supported by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Association of Women Lawyers (AWL), Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (SAWO), Family Frontiers, Empower, Sisters in Islam (SiS), KRYSS Network, Justice for Sisters, Perak Women for Women (PWW), Tenaganita, Young Women Making Change Malaysia, Speak Up Malaysia, Engender Consultancy, Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC), All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS), and Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS).
The women’s groups are also calling members of the public to support its #ReviewTheBill campaign which is #NotQuiteThere yet by following the respective organisations’ social media channels and spreading the message with the two hashtags.