Better legal options needed

OUR current legal framework on sexual harassment – the Employment Act, tort of sexual harassment, and the Penal Code offence of outraging modesty – applies to survivors of any gender. However, there are areas where Malaysia’s legal framework on sexual harassment is inadequate, says Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) deputy executive director and advocacy director Yu Ren Chung.

The first is in terms of coverage.

“The Employment Act only covers the workplace, and only applies to Peninsular Malaysia. According to the YouGov survey, only 24% of sexual harassment cases happen at work, ” says Yu.

“Second, cost – the tort of sexual harassment applies to any context, but you need to hire a lawyer which can cost thousands of ringgit. Third, the law doesn’t facilitate preventative measures. Fourth, the Penal Code only covers acts that amount to crimes and that meet criminal evidence standards, ” he adds.

Yu says that the awaited Sexual Harassment Bill would address these problems by covering all contexts – at work, universities, community groups, public transport, and so on – nationwide. It will also require organisations to adopt sexual harassment policies, establish an oversight mechanism to ensure organisations are addressing cases adequately, be free or very cheap to access, and reaches decisions on a balance of probabilities – with appropriate and proportianate punishments or resolutions. (Last Sunday, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun said the Sexual Harassment Bill is expected to be ready this March and will be tabled in the next Dewan Rakyat session.)

“Nonetheless, companies and organisations need not wait for the law, and can proactively adopt sexual harassment policies on their own. One place to start is looking at the “Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace”, a voluntary guideline introduced by the Ministry of Human Resources in 1999, ” he says.

Each and every one of us also has a duty to ensure this negative behaviour does not continue in our society.

“We need to stand up to harassment and abuse if we witness it happening at work, at home, or in our community. It could be a simple reply in a group whatsapp, to say “I don’t think that’s appropriate”, or to reach out to someone privately and offer them your support, ” says Yu.

Moving forward, Malaysians as a society need to support survivors of sexual harassment, assault, and domestic violence, regardless of their gender. With proper understanding of what sexual harassment is, and that targets and perpetrators can come from any background, we will be able to create an environment where targets of harassment no longer fear coming forward to get the justice they deserve.

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