THE Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) cautiously welcomes the announcement by Women, Family and Community Develop-ment Minister Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun that the Sexual Harassment Bill will be tabled in Parliament this year. While JAG commends the government’s commitment to tabling the urgently needed Bill, we hope that, in the interest of transparency, the ministry will share the stated “improvements” that have been made to the Bill.
The Covid-19 pandemic and the necessary movement control order (MCO) that was put in place to curb the spread of the virus have exposed and amplified many existing gender inequalities. This has manifested in many forms, including in a sharp rise in physical and online gender-based violence observed first-hand by NGO service providers like All Women’s Action Society (Awam), Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and KRYSS Network.
Enquiries to WAO’s hotline multiplied by 3.5 times after the start of the MCO period and Awam has also received an increase in enquiries from young women seeking mental health support and information on legal and sexual rights. Of the calls received on Awam’s helpline, 23% were sexual harassment cases, of which more than 38% were online sexual harassment incidents. KRYSS Network continues to receive complaints of online gender-based violence faced by victims resulting from acts of doxing and non-consensual distribution of intimate images.
With the pandemic, everyday activities and access to critical services have become dependent on technology, including in the realm of professional, educational and social activities. Juana Jaafar’s research on online gender-based violence in Malaysia, “Voice, Visibility and a Variety of Viciousness” (2017) confirms that at least 50% of women will either stop using social media or delete their accounts completely because of the violence and harassment they have faced. This means that in addition to the emotional and psychological impact on women that it has, online sexual harassment also hinders other aspects of their lives.
The World Economic Forum has recognised that sexual harassment is a major factor why women opt out of the workforce, and the impact of online gender-based violence is very much similar. With the current situation and the additional barriers to economic participation of lack of connectivity and lack of digital literacy, it is even more critical that proper protection and redress mechanisms are in place to ensure that women are not further forced to endure lost or reduced income as a result of sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment Bill is urgently needed to address these and other inequalities experienced by women, which have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Given the multifaceted nature of sexual harassment and the diverse ways in which it manifests in both the physical and virtual world, the Sexual Harassment Bill must contain provisions to adequately protect and offer redress to all survivors of sexual harassment.
First and foremost, the Bill must be inclusive in who is covered by the law. Any individual who experiences sexual harassment regardless of the context – whether professional, educational, religious, public or private – must have the ability to seek protection and recourse. Furthermore, the Bill must equally protect every person in Malaysia, regardless of location or legal status.
Second, the Bill must be comprehensive in the way it defines sexual harassment. The definition of sexual harassment should include any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person harassed or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment. Additionally, it must include all types of conduct, across all types of mediums, from physical conduct to implied or overt verbal, non-verbal, visual or gestural conduct, whether taking place in person or in the virtual world using any variety of platforms, from text to social media and video-conferencing technologies.
Finally, the Bill must be expansive in the obligations it imposes and in the protections and redress mechanisms it affords to survivors. For example, this includes imposing a proactive duty on all organisations to implement a sexual harassment policy and ensure their employees, volunteers, members, etc are thoroughly briefed on such policy.
This also includes establishing a Sexual Harassment Tribunal to allow survivors to make complaints of sexual harassment in a way that is less expensive, faster, and less burdensome. Many survivors of sexual harassment opt not to file a police report and simply want the harassment to stop or for their position prior to the harassment to be restored. The tribunal must have the ability to grant a wide variety of remedies so that it is a viable alternative to filing a police report or going to court.
Sexual harassment has always been a serious issue faced by women in Malaysia, both online or offline. The enactment of an inclusive, comprehensive and expansive Sexual Harassment Bill will formally acknowledge the severity of the harm and the negative effect sexual harassment can have on women’s economic, public and political participation, as well as on their personal lives.
JAG and other women’s groups that have been leading the call for a Sexual Harassment Act since 2001 hope that the government – and the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry in particular – will continue to engage with women’s rights groups to ensure that the Sexual Harass-ment Bill that is tabled in Parlia-ment is responsive to the everyday realities of women in Malaysia, and that the Bill ultimately serves its intended beneficiaries, survivors of sexual harassment, in the best and most comprehensive way possible.
ENDORSED BY THE FOLLOWING JOINT ACTION GROUP FOR GENDER EQUALITY (JAG) MEMBER ORGANISATIONS:
All Women’s Action Society, Association of Women Lawyers, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor, Justice for Sisters, KRYSS Network, Perak Women for Women, Sisters in Islam, Sabah Women’s Action-Resource Group, Sarawak Women for Women Society, Tenaganita, Women’s Aid Organisation