How cultivating mutual respect can help prevent sexual harassment


Over the weekend, my students and I had a very spirited discussion on the ‘rape joke’ incident. When this subject was brought up, some of them said to me:

“Teacher, this is actually very common. It happens in my school too.”

“Do you know that once a PE teacher said to me: Since you can’t do push-ups very well, just wear a shorter skirt for the test tomorrow and I’ll give you a pass.”

“A male teacher said that even if the girls/women cover up, men can still see through everything....”

“A male classmate said, ‘Why are you looking at me? Stop it or I’ll rape you....’”

First of all, it is massively disturbing that ‘rape jokes’ and inappropriate remarks in schools are a norm. Can we deny that there is a social sickness permeating our classrooms? Poisoning our children’s minds and threatening their safety? I weep for my students who are familiar with an environment where rape culture is normalised and the female dignity is trivialised.

Then, a question was posed to the students: How should girls/women respond to such unseemly remarks? Among the many answers given, one was ‘...report to the authorities’.

It is interesting to note that children have been so conditioned to trust ‘the authorities’ that this was the go-to response if they needed help.

Who are ‘the authorities’ in this context? The teachers? The principal? The Education Ministry? The police?

When Ain Husniza made this incident public, it threw a glaring light on the ubiquitous seediness in our schools. The consequence? To date, it seems that no action has been taken against the teacher who made the rape joke or the boy who threatened to rape her.

On the other hand, she was given a letter of expulsion for missing school (“Ain Husniza receives a warning of expulsion from school”, The Star, May 9,2021).

Much has been said about #MakingSchoolASaferPlace. However, we have yet to see meaningful actions taken to deter those who make schools UNsafe. Instead of punishing the perpetrator, they attempt to muzzle the whistleblower.

Instead of transforming, the culture in which sexual harassment and victim-blaming flourish is nurtured. In fact, this kind of repercussion is why sexual harassment incidents are kept in the dark (“Survey finds sexual harrassment largely unreported”, The Star, Aug 7,2019). Even before writing this letter, I was told, ‘Don’t bother as it won’t make a difference’.

Do we then teach our children to stay quiet, remain uncomfortable but not rock the boat?

A pertinent solution came from my 13-year-old male student who said: “Girls are always taught to protect themselves, but not many boys are taught to respect girls....”

It is worthwhile to consider the wisdom of this statement. Perhaps it is up to our community to teach our children to respect others.

At the end of the day, mutual respect may be the best safeguard. For if we depend on others to protect our children like in Ain’s case, it may be a case of ‘harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi’.

REBECCA CHIENG

Kuching

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