Tan Chia Ee (Jernell)
Information And Communications Officer
“My intimate picture is being leaked on social media and I don’t know what to do!”
“I was catcalled when I was jogging at the park.”
“My boss made sexual jokes and touched me inappropriately”.
Messages such as the above are received by AWAM’s Telenita hotline on a regular basis from young women. The issue of sexual harassment amongst young people is not a new one. However, with the #MeToo movement that started in the United States amongst the Hollywood stars a few years ago, the spotlight was focused on the issue of sexual harassment (SH) and brought much deserved attention to the issue.
The COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in a movement control order in Malaysia in March 2020 brought attention to the issue of SH in our country. Unfortunately, the reason behind this was because AWAM was receiving many calls from women experiencing SH.
In both 2018 and 2019, the number of cases of SH that AWAM received was 17 and 16 respectively. In 2020, AWAM received a total of 159 cases and enquiries about SH. This was a 893% increase in cases received by AWAM.
We can attribute the increase in cases to various reasons, such as AWAM advocating for more women to come forward, and more women themselves being empowered to speak about their experiences. However, regardless of the reasons, it cannot be denied that SH is a social ill that is becoming more and more prevalent and needs to be addressed properly in our country.
In Malaysia, the definition which women’s organizations use for SH is as follows :
SH consists of unwanted or unwelcomed conduct of a sexual nature that is perceived by the recipient to be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive, as well as with the intention of violating the recipient’s dignity.
Women are more likely to be survivors of sexual harassment. According to YouGov Omnibus’s sexual harassment survey in 2019 (Kim, 2019), over a third of Malaysian women experienced sexual harassment. This is often due to sociocultural factors such as Malaysia’s deep-rooted culture of patriarchy. Conservative beliefs that sexualise and subordinate women such as “girls were made to hug, kiss and sexually please men”, “real women look sexy” and “real men pinch bottoms” remain prevalent, perpetuating sexual harassment. Other equally important factors that further reinforce this sexual harassment-supportive environment include the culture of victim-blaming, which effectively determines that a person who is sexually harassed deserved to be harassed for various reasons, i.e. due to his or her clothing or behaviour. The lack of accountability mechanisms in many environments, be it work spaces or public spaces, make it challenging for survivors to speak out. It is important to note that men get sexually harassed as well. There tends to be underreporting of SH by male survivors, mainly due to the social stigma and fear of not being taken seriously, as being sexually harassed depicts ‘weakness’ that contradicts masculine stereotypes of strength and aggression. There are also fewer support systems and resources available for men. Past research has shown that even counsellors can express disbelief that male survivors can experience physical, mental and emotional devastation at the hands of women perpetrators.
SH is commonly perceived to be committed by parties from positions of authority. This is generally true, however there are also incidences where even a subordinate can sexually harass a superior. Perpetrators and targets of SH can be anyone, which means that even figures of authority can become targets of SH, for example a student sexually harassing a teacher during an online lesson.
SH can happen in multiple forms, specifically verbal, visual, gestural, physical and psychological. Verbal forms of SH consist of offensive or suggestive remarks, inappropriate questions, comments, jokes or sounds such as whistling. Visual forms constitute showing the recipient pornographic material, drawing sketches or writing letters of a sexual nature. Examples of gestural forms of SH include obscene hand signals, leering looks, ogling and holding or eating food in a sexually provocative manner. Physical forms of SH include pinching, stroking, kissing, fondling, and even more severe actions such as sexual assault and rape. Psychological forms of SH are the least known, and they include social invitations, dates or texting that is persistent and unwanted by the recipient. During the MCO, online SH has become more prevalent, and it can intersect with visual, verbal, gestural and psychological forms of SH, as the recipient receives persistent, unwanted and unwelcoming messages, videos, pictures and/or calls from the perpetrator. From October 2020 to February 2021, AWAM’s number of online SH cases received were at double digits and were almost equivalent to the number of offline SH cases. Online sexual harassment became so prevalent that AWAM now specifically has a separate section in its database to document such cases.
SH can have devastating effects on the survivor. Survivors report feeling embarrassed, afraid, or stigmatised, as well as engaging in self-blame. Survivors experience psychosocial and educational problems that include loss of appetite and disturbed sleep (Brown & Salomon, 2019); emotional distress, depression and anxiety (Dahlqvist et al., 2016); lower self-esteem and poor body image (Gruber & Fineran, 2008); substance abuse and other externalising behaviours (Brown & Salomon, 2019); as well as suboptimal academic outcomes (Lichty & Campbell, 2012). Self-harm, suicidal ideation and suicide are among the most severe consequences. This is especially evident in the case of Thivya Nayagi, a young Malaysian women, who committed suicide in May 2020, after she was inundated by a barrage of hateful messages in response to a viral TikTok video that she made with her male colleague.
Despite the severe consequences involved, Malaysia’s current legal framework does not comprehensively address SH. We have inadequate coverage of SH in terms of definition, whereby the Employment Act 1955 only covers the workplace, and not public spaces where 66% of sexual harassment incidents occur. On the other hand, Section 509 of the Penal Code pertaining to the offence of outraging modesty does not specifically cover SH, and it uses criminal evidence standards such as high burden of proof and the principle of “beyond reasonable doubt”. For SH cases that are more subjective in nature with the recipient’s perceptions as a significant determinant, these standards make it difficult for these SH cases to be heard in court. Furthermore, access to justice is challenging – although the Tort of Sexual Harassment applies to any context, not many survivors can seek for legal redress due to the high legal costs involved. In light of these limitations, it is thus crucial to table the standalone SH Bill, as it will (i) contain a comprehensive SH definition covering all contexts, (ii)mandate organisations in all sectors to adopt SH policies, as well as (iiI) establish a tribunal that is not only affordable for survivors but also provide equitable outcomes based on a balance of probabilities.
In February 2021, the Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun said that the SH Bill will be ready to be tabled in Parliament. Nevertheless, we need not wait for the law, and we can each play our part in ensuring that SH is not perpetuated in our society. We must all stand up to SH, and we can do so by being active bystanders.
• Offer help and support to the survivor, and do not blame them for what has happened. No one deserves to be sexually harassed, no matter the circumstances.
• Record the incident and collect evidence for the survivor, so that they can use them whenever they need to.
• If you are not sure how to intervene, ask someone else who may be more capable in handling the perpetrator (e.g. teacher, principal, parent) to do so.
• Share with everyone around you and on social media what you know about SH.
• Reach out to us at AWAM whenever you need help. You can reach us at 016-2374221.
The All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) is an independent feminist non-profit organization that was established in 1985. AWAM has three focus areas. The first is on support in the form of free counselling services and legal information services for gender-based violence (GBV) survivors, including those of rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. AWAM’s GBV services are open to all people in crisis, irrespective of gender. The second focus area is public education and outreach, with the aim of establishing a movement of people who are aware of the GBV issues facing society and want to eradicate the problems. The final focus area is collaborations with government agencies and ministries to advocate for policy change, as positive change needs to happen in both society and legislation for sustainable holistic impact.
- Over a third of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment
- Brown, CS., & Salomon, I. (2019). Adolescents’ responses to gendered harassment and discrimination: Effective strategies within a school context. In Confronting prejudice and discrimination: The science of changing minds and behaviors, pp. 159-177. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-814715-3.00007-2
- Dahlqvist HZ, Landstedt E, Young R, & Gadin, KG (2016) Dimensions of peer sexual harassment victimization and depressive symptoms in adolescence: A longitudinal cross-lagged study in a Swedish sample. Journal of Youth Adolescence, 45(5), 858-73. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-016-0446-x
- Gruber JE, Fineran S (2008) Comparing the impact of bullying and sexual harassment victimization on the mental and physical health of adolescents. Sex Roles, 59,1–13. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9431-5
- Lichty LF, Campbell R (2012) Targets and witnesses: middle school students’ sexual harassment experiences. Journal of Early Adolescence, 32, 414–430. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431610396090