A recent article in the Asian Correspondent covered stories of female journalists from Asean countries who took a brave leap in telling their stories of having been sexually harassed by politicians.
The sample group of journalists and politicians chosen by the conceivers of that article is clever. It allowed its authors to use the two groups as a sample to examine peripheral themes of power imbalance in a working relationship, exploitation and subordination — factors which contribute to sexual harassment.
Many would resonate with the stories told — employees who let an incident slide because ‘(s)he is my boss’, business owners who might have similar experiences with funders, or even those who find themselves victim of family members who abuse their position of protection.
With this groundswell triggered in Malaysia, what then needs to follow is responsible conversation with a view of informing holistic policy. As to policy, there are two levels to the discussion — one, the short-term steps; and two, the sexual harassment laws to be enacted.
My dad used to advise my younger siblings that they have an advantage over me in being the eldest sibling. That advantage was an opportunity for them to learn from my mistakes, and improve on them.
As a typically conservative country, it is natural that our conversations on sex and sexuality are often taken over by more progressive and liberal countries. But our advantage lies in learning from their pitfalls, and to improve on them.
The short-term and most accessible step that can be taken by any one of us is to encourage responsible conversation. This we learn from the sharp tongue wars that have divided the #MeToo movement.
In doing so, let our conversation on sexual harassment be all encompassing.
Let us not limit the conversation on sexual harassment by stereotyping genders — women can harass too, and men too can be victim of harassment. As we tell men that what a woman wears have nothing to do with why a woman is harassed, let us also teach our children virtue in modest dressing.
With conversation come education, and with education comes consideration of school syllabuses. Aside from slipping in a chapter on sexual reproduction in our children’s Form 3 Science subject, sex education on this issue must be taught at the earliest opportunity — primary school even, if subsequent research shows it necessary.
Examples of topics that should be covered are: respect for other genders, what amounts to harassment, consent, street smarts and what exactly to do if something untoward happens. Such education should also be replicated at the workplace — for this to happen, oversight bodies such as the Bar Council, Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, the Malaysian Medical Council, National Union of Journalists would play an important role in implementing such schemes.
But as we inevitably focus on the victim, let us also be mindful of the possibility of false prosecution and having sufficient protection for the innocent accused. With that comes the need to build a robust legal system. This moves us on to the second level of discussion.
The Pakatan Harapan Women’s Manifesto has promised that it will propose a Sexual Offences Bill if Pakatan Harapan forms government — a long time coming, given the lacunae in our laws.
Having said that, such laws are by no means an easy matter to deal with.
Of consideration must be the low rate of reporting and therefore the number of victims that fail to see justice served. Much of the reason for this has to do with the fear and self-shaming that immediately follows an incident of sexual harassment. Even if incidents do get reported, there is usually an issue of delay — here, the ability to recollect and the credibility of such recollection becomes an issue.
One of the methods of encouraging reporting is to give legal weight to third party reporting — whilst a victim might not be willing to report an incident; a relative or guardian might instead. Having said that, third party complaints must of course be substantiated with cogent investigation.
To prevent the abuse of such a system, follow up prosecution for false reporting must be enforced, on top of having third party categories limited to certain credible groups of people.
Another method to encourage victims to come forward is to codify a set of rights that the police must offer a complainant after reporting — temporary protection in a safe house and counselling are examples.
With knowledge of a safe reporting environment, we embolden society. With a bolder society, it is likely that more victims will come forward.
Another consideration is whether our sexual harassment laws should recognise the rationale behind “rape shield laws” that are being proposed in first world countries?
These are laws that essentially prohibit the admissibility of the complainant’s sexual reputation and the impeachment of the complainant’s truthfulness as a result.
This would alleviate to a certain extent the fear of reporting sexual crimes. However, let us consider this issue, having in mind how on one hand character evidence and previous convictions are typically admissible in litigation of non-sexual crimes; but on the other hand, the added shame the complainant might have to endure in the witness box on top of the assumedly true ordeal that s/he underwent.
These examples serve in highlighting the tricky terrain that we are embarking on, which in turn signals to us additional reason to be thoughtful in our discussion, given how the way we speak will have an inevitable knock-on effect on our policies.
Malaysia can build a robust culture and environment against sexual harassment and sexual crimes — but we need all quarters to bend together to make this happen.