Building inclusive communities, safer spaces

Concrete steps: The government needs to urgently pass the long-awaited Sexual Harassment Bill, which covers sexual harassment in any context, including public spaces. Then the government must also pass an Anti-Stalking law. — Filepic/The Star

EVER so often, we will hear of horrific and violent crimes committed against women and girls in Malaysia.

Among the cases that were widely reported and remain in our collective memory due to their extremely abhorrent and vile nature, is the 2000 murder and sexual assault of computer engineer Noor Suzaily Mukhtar on a bus on her way to work.

A few years later in 2003, IT analyst Canny Ong was abducted from a shopping mall carpark, sexually assaulted and murdered.

In 2006, marketing executive Chee Gaik Yap was sexually assaulted and murdered while jogging in a park. Only a year later, eight-year-old Nurin Jazlin Jazimin was kidnapped on her way to a pasar malam, sexually assaulted and murdered.

These crimes should never have occurred, and we must do better to protect women and children from ever becoming targets of gender-based violence (GBV).

GBV, including in the form of sexual harassment and in the form of more extreme violent acts such as rape or murder, are the symptoms of what is at the root a patriarchal culture that devalues women, says the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

To truly eliminate GBV from Malaysia society, we must address the symptoms through laws and temporary measures to protect women, while also working to address the root causes.

“Addressing the root causes of gender-based violence includes educating children from a young age about gender equality and working to address and eliminate stereotypical gender roles and attitudes from various aspects of our everyday lives, ” says WAO Head of Campaigns Natasha Dandavati.

Much-needed laws

Along with implementing more public safety measures such as women’s parking bays and similar mechanisms in other public and private spaces, there also needs to be better oversight and enforcement on these mechanisms.

The government must raise awareness of the need for such measures so that they are not met with public resistance, says Dandavati.

“A greater investment in public education and awareness around GBV should be made so that not only are all members of the public aware of the issue, but they are more equipped to not be bystanders and to intervene if they see something wrong or suspicious, ” Dandavati explains.

One concrete step the government can take, says Dandavati, is to pass the long-awaited Sexual Harassment Bill that covers sexual harassment in any context, including public spaces, and allows those who experience harassment to seek recourse in a manner that is inexpensive and expedient.

Furthermore, the Sexual Harassment Act must include a duty on all orgaanisations to have a secual harassment policy.

According to Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun, the Sexual Harassment Bill is expected to be ready this month and will be tabled in the next Dewan Rakyat session.

Moving forward, the government must also pass an Anti-Stalking law.

“The anti-stalking law would recognise the act of stalking as a crime and allow survivors to get protection, and it would also push forward our societal understanding of stalking as yet another form of GBV, ” Dandavati says.

Political will needed

To really ensure the safety of women in public spaces, there must be strong political will that will ensure policies are in place to protect women, says the All Women’s Action Society (Awam).

While there has been some progress with ensuring safety of women in public spaces like the introduction of women and family-only parking bays, or Keretapi Tanah Melayu’s women-only train carriages, these are only carried out at the discretion of the companies involved, Programme and Operations Manager Nisha Sabanayagam observes.

“There are small steps taken to support women and we applaud the companies that do this. But what about the women who don’t drive? The ones who walk to work or the shops, or use public transport, ” Sabanayagam asks.

Along with the WAO and other women’s groups, AWAM also strongly advocates for the implementation of better laws to protect women, like the Sexual Harassment Bill.

“We did this because we understood the fear that women felt when they were in public spaces. They are vulnerable to attack of a sexual nature at any time, ” says Sabanayagam.

The root of gender-based violence is gender inequality, says Sabanayagam, and violence against women happens because many in society falsely view women as beings of “lesser value” than men. This is why it is important to instill education on gender equality from a young age.

“As community members, we all have a role to play to ensure that we do not encourage stereotypical norms and we must try consciously to be as inclusive as possible. Of course this is easier said than done, even among those most enlightened of us, but we must try the best that we can. If at the very least to ensure that Malaysia is a safe space for its women.”

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