More online sexual harassment during movement control order

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Photograph: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

The All-Women’s Action Society (Awam) urges the authorities to work together to investigate these cases as soon as possible so that survivors may return to their day-to-day activities without fear of sexual harassment.

On Saturday, 23 May, Bandar Utama state assembly member Jamaliah Jamaluddin lodged a police report after receiving racist, sexist threats and violent threats of rape and murder via Facebook. The social media user who articulated this threat also made racist remarks against Jamaliah Jamaluddin and Kampung Tunku state assembly member Lim Yi Wei calling them ‘Cina DAP’.

This is only one of many incidents of online sexual harassment that has come to Awam’s attention prior and during the movement control order. Throughout the movement control order, Awam has received multiple complaints of sexual harassment. In fact, 18.5% of all cases which comes through our helpline is made up of sexual harassment cases. Online sexual harassment accounts for 41.7% of these sexual harassment cases.

At least two cases involved those who were sexually harassed by quarantine centre staff – one survivor claims that her hotel room was broken into as the harasser sent her pictures (via her mobile) of her undergarments that were in her room.

Other cases we have received include a survivor who is mentally challenged receiving a picture of animals having sex from her boss, and another survivor whose pictures were shared (without her permission) in a WhatsApp group with male members amounting to the hundreds.

The severity of online sexual harassment cannot be undermined – this has been proven in the recent case of Thivya Nayagi, whose cyberbullying and online sexual harassment resulted in her committing suicide.

Online sexual harassment – or sexual cyber harassment – refers to threatening or harassing messages of a sexual nature, disseminated via emails, instant messaging services, social media platforms or other digital materials that are posted online. It usually targets a specific person either through direct contact or by the exact opposite methods, such as posting unsavory content about said person on social media channels.

Online sexual harassment also includes the act of threatening to disseminate personal information or materials of a sexual nature that will cause the person being threatened to feel humiliated, offended, or threatened.

Online sexual harassment is particularly harmful in the sense that it causes alarm and distress, compromising a person’s mental integrity at a time where people are dealing with psychosocial issues, financial issues and job insecurity during the movement control order.

This form of gender-based online violence is increasing as more people are now resorting to online media and communications, as a result of social distancing. Many are taking advantage of the fact that they can be anonymous online and thus express their feelings of discontent through sexist comments, jokes and in some cases, sexual harassment.

This fact also serves to highlight that there is not enough enforcement focused on online cyberbullying and harassment. Sterner measures must be taken both by the police and the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).

The Sexual Harassment Bill and the proposed anti-stalking amendment to the Penal Code would go a long way in giving survivors security and, most importantly, to demand accountability through a legal process where their personal, physical, mental and emotional security has been threatened or compromised. It would also serve as a prevention tool and teach Malaysians to have respect for their fellow citizens in all spaces, online or otherwise.

Awam urges Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador and the MCMC to work together to investigate these cases as soon as possible so that the survivors may return to their day-to-day activities without fear of sexual harassment. The lack of accountability that is often perceived as social permission in cases of online sexual harassment, reinforces ideas that devalue and sexualise women and is very likely to be replicated in real life as well. Authorities must nip this social ill in the bud before it becomes a huge societal problem that will be even more difficult and complicated to handle.

25 May 2020

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