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Sexual harassment, so what?

 | June 9, 2011

Even an athlete's death failed to convince the nation's leaders on the importance of protecting women from such crimes.

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Seventeen years ago, the country was dumbfounded when a rising female athlete committed suicide. The youngster, Rabia Abdul Salam, apparently had been sexually harassed by her coach.

What drove Rabia to end her life? The shame of being a victim of sexual harassment, of not being able to face life as a result of that?

Unfortunately, the Rabia episode failed to move the government to put into place legislation to safeguard women from vile acts of sexual harassment. Women continue to face sexual distress, be it at the workplace or in public spaces, but the government is least bothered about providing a helping hand.

In April 2008, the then minister Jamaluddin Jarjis was said to have sexually harassed a female worker of a restaurant at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur.

Jamaluddin’s disrespectful act far from shocked the government of the day. What, however, followed was that barely hours after the incident, the victim withdrew her statutory complaint against Jamaluddin, and the case was never heard again. He nows enjoys life as Malaysia’s ambassador to the United States.

More recently, a female tourist guide who was forced by a travel agency to share a room with a male tour bus driver had come forward complaining that she was sexually harassed by him. Sexual harassment, it seems, has been plaguing the female tourist guides for quite sometime. But these female tour guides remain silent for fear of losing their job. But for how long?

The absence of such invigilation also makes the perpetrator less fearful about the consequences of his actions.

While the government drags its feet in providing women protection from “crimes” like sexual harassment, the non-compulsory Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace, put in place in 1999, is no help when it comes to providing women psychological relief from sexual harassment.

Indeed, it is appalling to note the government’s indecisiveness in swiftly putting in place the much needed sexual harassment law to protect women.

Sexist mindsets not welcomed

While the sexist mindsets found quartermiler Rabia’s death on Feb 25, 1994, not worthy of immediate action to protect more women committing suicide to hide the shame of sexual harassment, time is no longer a tool they can depend on to dismiss sexual harassment incidences taking place in the country.

In this respect, sexist remarks made against an act so damaging to a woman’s dignity must be dealt with severely. One such example was in 2009 when the Labour Department director-general Ismail Abdul Rahim commented that having a Sexual Harassment Act “could lead to a dull and rigid environment in the workplace”. Ismail’s words bear proof that sexual harassment is not viewed seriously.

But then Ismail is not the only culprit who needs severe reprimanding. Disrespectful Members of Parliament like Bung Mokhtar Radin (MP for Kinabatangan) and Mohd Yusof Said (MP for Jasin) earned the wrath of the women’s group for making fun of the female menstrual cycle.

Yet, the MPs never cease to learn from their mistakes and continue to regard the issue of sexual harassment as a trivial matter.

Had the government been serious about the issue of sexual harassment, it would long have criminalise sexual harassment. Instead, the government, in all its apathy, has been a big letdown to the women citizens of this country, who are left on their own in battling this disturbing emotional scourge.

The recent incident of a tour bus driver forcing himself on a tour guide while both were on an assignment received no feedback from Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who has promised Malaysians that he is all about “people first, performance now”.

What is worrying is that the Malaysian Women Tourist Guide Association president Erina Loo Siew Ming, a tourist guide of 18 years, had also been sexually harassed in the cause of her work. However, the fear of becoming jobless forced these women tourist guides to endure such humiliation in silence.

Sexist comments

Last year, when Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah lamented that Malaysia was still miles away when it comes to awareness on sexual harassment, she certainly hit the nail on the head.

Josiah cited the 90-day maternity leave proposal for women as one example.

“The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and minister were all for it but the Cabinet wasn’t. So the ministry backed down and that was the end of it,” she was quoted by an English daily as saying.

Josiah added: “This government really needs to lead the nation in setting human rights standards.”

She then said only about 500 cases of sexual harassment were filed with the ministry over a 10-year period. The number, however, did not mean such cases were not prevalent.

Josiah said when the people were able to trust the system and believed they would get some form of justice, only then would they do something about it.

One such scenario was when the Domestic Violence Act came into being in 1996, there was a 200% increase in the number of reports made the following year. As Josiah said, “Women were just waiting for signs.”

Josiah was unequivocal when she said that the country had yet to accord women due respect and this was evident from views of people who hold on to the notion that sexual harassment was not an important issue to deal with.

“Even in Parliament, sexual harassment is rife with MPs making sexist comments. Parliament is the highest body and the parliamentary standing orders should have a clear clause to ensure that sexism and sexual harassment are not allowed,” said Josiah.

Sad day

In 2009, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry announced that it was in discussions with the Human Resources Ministry regarding the proposed legislation. Its deputy minister Noriah Kasnon said sexual harassment incidents affecting women were more than the number of cases reported because most victims felt embarrassed or afraid to lodge reports.

Noriah said between 2005 and 2008, there were 3,906 cases of sexual violence and harassment cases, including rape and molestation reported to the police. Another 27 disciplinary cases involving the public sector, were reported to the Public Service Department.

“Besides, sexual harassment in whatever forms, be it physical, verbal or psychological, was a serious offence under the Penal Code,” Noriah had said.

While the two ministries take their time in deliberating the proposed legislation, women continue to face sexual harassment, both at work and in public domain. Just how much more longer will the “discussions” go on, that too at the expense of the peace of mind of women in this country?

Perhaps both ministries should take cognisance of how other nations dealt with sexual harassment complaints. One such case involved former Israeli president Moshe Katsav who on Dec 30, 2010, was convicted of two accounts of rape, sexual harassment and indecent acts.

To Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the conviction marked a “sad day for the state of Israel and its residents”. The premier added that the conviction sent out two clear-cut messages, “that all are equal before the law and every woman has exclusive rights to her body”.

Truly, as Josiah pointed out, Malaysia had a long, long way to go with regard to awareness on sexual awareness. And when a sportswoman kills herself because she was sexually harassed, that was a “sad day for Malaysia and her people”.

Log on to WAO’s website at wao.org.my for details on what constitutes sexual harassment, types of sexual harassment, employer’s responsibility and steps you should take in dealing with it.


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