Time for specific law to deal with sexual harassment, says UN expert

Marcelo Suazo (third from left with participants of the forum) says only 267 cases of sexual harassment were reported to police last year.

PUTRAJAYA: The government has been urged to come up with a comprehensive law as part of efforts to address sexual harassment in the country.

Marcelo Suazo, a former women’s affairs minister from Honduras now working with the United Nations (UN), said the lack of legal clarity around the issue had discouraged many women from coming forward to report such incidents.

Suazo, who is Malaysia’s representative for the United Nations Population Fund and chair of the UN’s Gender Theme Group, also noted the under-reporting of sexual harassment incidents in Malaysia.

“Last year, 1,582 cases of rape were reported to the police. That same year, there were 5,513 reports of domestic violence, but only 267 cases of sexual harassment were reported.

“While Malaysia has seen a strong increase in awareness of sexual harassment as a genuine issue over the last three decades, severe under-reporting continues to mask the true scale of the problem,” she said at a forum on the elimination of violence against women here.

Suazo acknowledged that the government had made efforts to fight sexual harassment but said these must be enhanced.

Having a comprehensive law to deal with such matters was one way forward, she added.

She said many Malaysian women felt it was not worthwhile bringing such cases to light, and that there were gaps in the present law.

She said the fear of not being taken seriously and the stigma carried by survivors, rather than the perpetrators, played a part in discouraging women from reporting cases of sexual harassment.

“Perpetrators have the chance to act with impunity while women are left facing the discrimination against them.”

Speaking from her experience as a women’s affairs minister from 2002 until 2006, Suazo said strong political will was very much needed to address the issue.