The lobby for a law on sexual harassment started in the late 1990s.
“It began in 1999, when the Women’s Centre for Change, Penang received complaints of sexual harassment from six women working in a resort hotel in Penang,” says veteran women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah.
“The laws at that time were inadequate to deal with workplace sexual harassment. For instance the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment, introduced in 1999 by the Human Resources Ministry was not effective as it was not made mandatory.
“So a petition for legislation was initiated by women groups and workers’ associations and on June 30, 2000. The (then) Human Resources Minister received the petition which garnered 12,800 signatures and endorsements from 64 organisations,” she shares.
As the president of WCC at the time, Zarizana Abdul Aziz was among the activists who tried to get justice and compensation for the four women. She was also instrumental in drafting the law on sexual harassment that went through several revisions to produce the 2022 Bill.
“My involvement with the sexual harassment bill started in or about 2000 after the four former employees approached WCC. They alleged that they were dismissed for having filed complaints of sexual harassment against their boss (the two other women resigned). There was no law against sexual harassment. Employers were not legally obliged to do anything to prevent or even respond to sexual harassment. So we had to look into ways to address their complaints without relying on a sexual harassment specific law,” she recounts.
As there was a law against unfair dismissal, Zarizana, Dr Cecilia Ng (another pioneer of feminism in Malaysia and founding member of the All Women’s Action Society) and other activists assisted the women by providing legal support for their claim of unfair dismissal against the company as well as criminal offences against their boss.
Their case demonstrated how violence and harassment are barriers to women participating in the workforce, becoming entrepreneurs, studying in educational institutions and even being able to move about safely.
“It affects the ability of women to earn a living for themselves and their families or to undertake everyday tasks such as take public transport, enrol in educational institutions, travel or shop.
“That was why, when the women lost their jobs because they complained of sexual harassment, we were alarmed and took immediate steps to appeal to the government for a law to protect women, particularly at work or in the pursuit of work.
“Women should not have to tolerate violence and harassment so that they can work,” she says.
For the four women who came forward all those years ago, getting justice was an excruciating process, says Zarizana, a legislative drafting and judicial capacity development consultant.
“They were in and out of court for years. Their names were disclosed in the media. It was challenging for them to get new employment,” she shares, adding that the identity of complainants in cases involving sexual offences need to be protected.
“Their boss left the country resulting in the criminal case against him being discontinued. Their perseverance resulted in their unfair dismissal claims being upheld. Seven years after their dismissals, the Industrial Court awarded them compensation for unfair dismissal.
“Still, it was a long and arduous road for the women. And a circuitous route to obtain justice for sexual harassment. This could have been avoided if there was an anti-sexual harassment law. Consequently, they were not given remedy for having been sexually harassed but for having been dismissed unfairly,” she says.
Although the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry was supportive of the Bill from the start, there were groups that were resistant to it.
“In the early years the resistance against this Bill, especially from employers, was strong. They believed that a law on sexual harassment will open a Pandora’s box of false allegations. We have come a long way from the early years of disbelief and the #MeToo Movement did shine a light that sexual harassment is indeed rampant and real,” says Josiah.
Adds Zarizana: “The Ministry was very supportive. We had meetings with the Secretary General and the then Minister. Mostly, Cecilia Ng (fellow activist) and I represented JAG at these meetings. The media too covered the issue extensively. We raised awareness on the issue and had a lot of public support.
“(But) one employers’ group opposed the idea of having a law against sexual harassment. Even though another employers federation supported it, the one opposition served as an impediment. To the credit of JAG, the KL Bar and newer groups like Young Women Making Change, the work on having the law reformed continued.”
Concludes Josiah: “22 years is a long time, but women activists have learnt to persist, persuade and protest.”