New sexual harassment bill edges closer to law in Malaysia | Women News

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – In college, three years ago, Esma* felt nagging pain along her arm and went to the clinic on campus.

As she lay on the examination bed, the doctor asked her to unbutton her top shirt. He said a lump on her chest could be causing the pain and told her to lower her bra.

“I did what he asked me to do because nothing was suspicious at first. I think he’s doing his job,” she told Al Jazeera.

She soon discovered something else.

The doctor told her she had nice breasts, gave her a kiss and squeezed her nipples. It took about 30 seconds for her to fully understand what was happening.

“I did not say anything. I was so shocked,” Esma said. “I just sat up and dressed, and he sat back in the chair to write me a prescription for my arm – it didn’t mention the lumps. Then I left.”

Report of sex ring is not uncommon in Malaysia, but despite the existence of numerous legal mechanisms, many women argue that effective remedies are still lacking.

They hope the long-awaited Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill, first passed before Parliament last December, will soon become law. The second reading will take place this month.

“This bill would apply to anyone, in any context,” said Daniella Zulkifili, from the Association of Women Lawyers, who helped draft the bill.

This legislation would expand the current, partial application of sexual harassment laws – beyond the workplace to include situations that occur in any context, such as educational institutions, clinics, public transport, sports clubs, even online.

Decades of debate

For women’s rights activists, it’s been a long struggle.

Initial discussions of more comprehensive legislation on sexual harassment began in the 1990s. But due to a lack of political will, real progress only occurred when elections in 2018 led to a change. change the Malaysian government for the first time since independence.

Subsequent political maneuvers have yielded some old guard back to powerBut the bill continues to move forward.

A man accused of sexual assault covers his face as he is escorted by police at a court in Kuala Lumpur
Sexual harassment and assault under the Penal Code can be lengthy and traumatic for survivors [File: Stringer/EPA]

Now 21, Esma thinks the mere existence of such an act would help survivors feel the offense was taken seriously.

“I think mentally, it will help me a lot. I can recover faster,” she said. “Every time I have to go to the police station or go to the courthouse, I start to feel what has happened. I can’t go on.”

Esma told her university supervisor what happened shortly after she was assaulted, but feels the officer doubts her story.

The next day, she ignored the doctor’s calls and he texted her saying she might have something in her breast and should see a specialist. Esma conducted a scan the next day, but found no cause for concern. The same day, she went to the police.

The medic was subsequently charged under section 354 of the Malaysian Penal Code with “criminal assault or use of force against a person with intent to display modesty” as there was no specific crime. for “sexual harassment”. Esma feels her college is to blame, too; She should have been safe there.

According to Zulkifili, pursuing rehabilitation under the Penal Code can be challenging. Many cases may not legally constitute a crime because of the severity and specific factors that must be met, as well as the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Esma’s case is still pending, but the legal process has been battered. She was not allowed to be accompanied to court despite her request, and she felt compelled to beg her university superintendent to testify in her favor.

“She was scared when she arrived. I do not know why. I’m the one who needs help. I feel like no one is trying to help me. I had to do everything by myself,” Esma said.

Other legal options

Besides seeking justice through the criminal courts, since 2016, survivors have been able to sue their sexual harassers in civil courts for monetary compensation. But not everyone can afford legal advice and the process can take years.

The new bill expands legal options for survivors by creating a special court, held behind closed doors, to be adjudicated by experts in law and related matters. to sexual harassment.

It will have the power to order a range of remedies in addition to monetary compensation, such as an apology or consultation, and must do so within 60 days. The required standard of proof is based on a balance of probabilities – similar to civil cases – while the sexual harasser’s past behavior or conversations the victim has about Their experience can be submitted as evidence.

A sexual harassment case tried as a crime can go to court at the same time.

However, the court does not allow the parties legal representation, which critics say could prevent a survivor from submitting their complaint for fear of facing their own harasser.

Such a trial, however, could help Jun*, 26, who feels he has failed the current system.

Earlier this year, while Jun’s company held an event in the hall, she went into the cramped audio room adjacent to it to turn off the television. As she reached up to do so, she said a male colleague approached behind her and pinned her, pinning her to a side wall as he appeared to be reaching for one. what.

“He has a big belly and I can feel it sticking to my back. He even said in my ear that he wanted to ‘strangle me,’ she told Al Jazeera, partly in Mandarin.

Returning to work a few days after the holiday, Jun reported the incident to her manager, but felt blamed for it.

“He said that because I wore a short skirt, I had a very easy temper to bully. He asked me why I didn’t hit back,” she said, her voice wavering. “I tried to fight, but at the same time I panicked. I had to calm myself down.”

According to a Survey 2020 Among 1,010 Malaysian women, 62% have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

The 2011 amendment to the Employment Act instructs employers who receive such complaints to conduct an internal investigation, but it is up to the employer to do so. . “Some organizations seek independent members to form panels,” Zulkifili said, “but there is no such obligation.”

After that, Jun made a formal complaint. There are no surveillance cameras in the audio room, but there is a person monitoring the main area. However, the scene did not help her. The company’s investigation concluded that no sexual harassment occurred. Jun said the location of the camera outside the sound room makes it difficult to see what really happened.

She said that another male colleague in the sound room witnessed the incident, but laughed it off as a joke and would not support her complaint. She also said that her harasser had told people that she had seduced him herself and that the investigation was unfair because her harasser was friends with the brother of the company’s boss.

Ultimately, Jun felt pressured to resign from his job, but decided not to pursue constructive action under the Industrial Relations Act, which could offer monetary compensation. She feared it would weaken her case.

“I don’t want money. I want him to be punished and I want him to sincerely apologize to me,” she said.

‘Screaming and pushing him away’

Discouraged from pursuing official channels, other women have posted their experiences in the press and social media, but it is also difficult to attribute the blame to sexual harassers.

In 2020, college student “Soleil Ching” held a press conference to report the professor had sexually harassed her, after not being addressed by her university or the police. She also crowdfunded to sue him in a civil lawsuit.

Last April, Ain HusnizaAt the time, a 17-year-old student took to TikTok to complain about a teacher at her school joking about raping her in front of class. She never named the teacher publicly, but he sued her anyway for defamation. The teacher is currently being defended by government-appointed attorneys in her costume.

More recently, Yihwen Chen, a journalist, made a meditative short film, Boys Club, about her experience of being sexually harassed while filming the documentary – which follows the documentary’s indirect theme – and how she felt unsupported by her boss when reporting. She finally felt compelled to leave.

A Malaysian teenager Ain Husniza, who reported her teacher for making a rape joke, told media supported by her father and supporters outside the police station
Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam (pink coach center) is facing a defamation advocate by the government after she criticized a teacher for making a rape joke. She didn’t name him [File: Arif Kartono/AFP]

Activists say that despite some progress, even the new bill is not enough.

In recent public statements, the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality – which includes the Association of Women Lawyers (AWL) and the Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) – has called for an amendment.

Activists have asked to expand the definition of sexual harassment beyond interactions between two individuals to include hostile environments that could allow sexual harassment, and argue for imposing obligations on Organizations must prevent such behavior and handle complaints with caution.

Abinaya Mohan, WAO’s head of campaigns, notes: “A lot of the cases are related to power dynamics, and there can be a lot of backlash for survivors. “So it is very important to ban continued victimization. There must be a protection mechanism so that complainants can speak up freely”.

Quote a YouGov Survey 2019 out of 1,002 Malaysians, Betty Yeoh of the social enterprise for women’s rights ENGENDER Consultancy – who also helped draft the bill – added, “Sexual harassment happens to 35% of women and 17% of men in Malaysia. This bill is not just for women, it is for every citizen in this country.”

Until it came out, Jun, hurt over and over again by distrust, offered advice to women who found themselves sexually harassed.

“Scream and push him away. Then you will have a better case under the law. “

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of survivors.

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