Safeguard rights of sexual harassment survivors

Photograph: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) applauds the actions of the University of Malaya (UM) student who lodged a police report against the university’s Integrity Unit for the alleged mishandling of her sexual harassment complaint against a senior lecturer.

UM’s Integrity Unit’s alleged poor management of the sexual harassment complaint which was made on 1 July 2019, especially in keeping the complainant informed of all developments in the investigation and subsequent safety and punitive measures, is especially troubling considering that the university is one of the first Malaysian institutions of higher education to implement the Code of Practice on the Prevention and Handling of Sexual Harassment.

The Code of Practice clearly states that the organisation, business or institution has an obligation to notify both the complainant and the defendant in writing, about the results of the investigation once it is completed. UM appears to have failed to take the necessary steps in handling the sexual harassment complaint in an ethical, fair and transparent manner.

While UM’s Vice-Chancellor Abdul Rahim Hashim responded by stating that UM had taken immediate action in suspending the lecturer as a result of the investigation, it does not absolve the university of the obligation to notify the student who is the complainant. While confidentiality and privacy of the individuals involved should be upheld, it should not come at the cost of compromising the complainant’s right to information.

The student’s courage and persistence in following up with the status of her complaint to the university and in holding the university accountable by lodging a police report against the Integrity Unit are both praiseworthy and upsetting; praiseworthy because she is standing up for her rights but also in ensuring that the university is a safe space for all students, and upsetting because of the hurdles she has had to navigate to defend her rights and safety.

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This incident underlines the need for a transparent process to create a safe space for survivors to speak up and demand redress free from systemic hurdles that make the process harder on survivors. A transparent process will not only create a safe space in the office or university, but it will also restore faith in the organisation’s processes.

Sexual harassment affects millions of Malaysians, including students. A 2019 survey of Malaysians by YouGov estimated that 28% of Malaysians have experienced sexual harassment; a fifth of which occurred in schools or universities.

Early this year, the All Women’s Action Society (Awam) conducted a poll on sexual harassment where 13.5% of respondents (out of 205) stated that they had been sexually harassed in schools and universities. The same poll also reported that 59% of respondents did not report their harassment, and the reasons provided ranged from survivors not being aware of what to do at that moment, to fear of repercussion as the perpetrator was someone in a position of power.

These numbers are worrying as they indicate that there is a significant number of unreported cases of sexual harassment, especially at universities and where authority figures are involved. Yet, in this case at UM, the survivor bravely reported the authority figure in the hope that she would be fully supported by an institution. This did not happen.

JAG firmly believes that the key to ensuring that sexual harassment is properly addressed lies in the passing of the sexual harassment bill, which offers survivors the option of faster, safer, and free access to redress and where transparency and accountability are ensured. The bill also requires organisations and institutions to have in place workable, effective sexual harassment policies that protect the safety of survivors, are transparent with relevant information, and do not allow perpetrators to walk away with a mere flick on the wrist.

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We urge Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rina Harun and her deputy, Siti Zailah, to table the bill as soon as possible so that survivors are able to access avenues for redress that are not currently available due to gaps in the current laws and to encourage Malaysian society to always adopt a zero-tolerance stance to sexual harassment.

Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)

Endorsing NGOs:

  • All Women’s Action Society (Awam)
  • Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS)
  • Justice for Sisters
  • Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)
  • Pusat Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)
  • Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG)
  • Perak Women for Women (PWW)
  • Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)
  • Sisters in Islam (SIS)
  • Kryss Network
  • Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
  • Women’s Aid Organization (WAO)

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27 Jul 2020 5.34pm

What kind of University values are the board n the bully telling to the world at large? Where do you think the victim can seek recourse and justice? JAG should be empowered. Don’t let the university ever be corrupted.