Stand Together and Address Sexual Harassment, Especially During the MCO

Three incidences of sexual harassment in the space of five days. From April 19 till April 23,2020, the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) has received two cases of sexual harassment. The first case is directly related to Movement Control Order (MCO) mechanisms, where several women being quarantined in a facility were alleged targets for sexual harassment by a staff member, and the other is related to cyberharassment. At the same time, just two days ago, MCA National Youth Chairperson Nicole Wong had lodged a police report for her safety and her daughter’s after receiving inappropriate pictures and sexual threats via text message.

These incidences are indicative of bigger worrying issues. Firstly, the incident at the quarantine center serves to emphasize the message AWAM has been sending throughout the MCO – that sexual harassment is liable to happen even in places that are deemed safe.

During the MCO, authorities, frontliners, aid givers etc. have the advantage of power. Unfortunately, some have decided to misuse this power. Thus messaging about gender based violence needs to be reinforced during the MCO, so that everybody -including members of the public – understands that despite the focus of authorities on stopping the spread of Covid 19, this does not mean that behaviours such as harassment and abuse will go unnoticed and most importantly, unpenalized.

“The government through PDRM must be clear that action will be taken against perpetrators of sexual harassment even during the MCO,” said AWAM Programme and Operations Manager Nisha Sabanayagam.

Secondly, sexual cyberharassment is also more likely to happen during the MCO. The second case involved a college student, whose pictures were being shared without her permission across the internet, resulting in lewd and sexist comments. Just yesterday, CyberSecurity Malaysia chief executive officer Datuk Dr Amirudin Abdul Wahab said that during the MCO, people are more likely to be at home and online, leading to an increase in cyberharassment.

AWAM applauds CyberSecurity Malaysia for establishing a 24 hour hotline and taking action to disable the online channels of the perpetrator. However this is not a sustainable solution. Authorities like PDRM and MCMC need to work together to ensure that online perpetrators of gender based violence are properly penalized.  Strong and consistent messaging must be communicated so Malaysians are clear that all forms of gender based violence will not be tolerated, even on electronic platforms, in order to curb this rampant social problem.

Thirdly, certain acts of sexual harassment may seem like mild acts of transgressions in comparison to rape or domestic violence, but these mild acts are indicative of the bigger picture.

“Sexual harassment is not likely to go away on its own. If a perpetrator’s actions is not addressed, it is likely that he will conduct even worse acts of sexual harassment, because he feels that he can get away with it. In cases like this, verbal harassment can lead to physical harassment and this may eventually heighten to sexual violence, “ said AWAM Programme and Operations Manager Nisha Sabanayagam.

The worse the harassment gets, the harder it is to remedy. A society that allows sexual harassment to go unchecked, will develop long term social ills. Furthermore, the impact of sexual harassment on survivors is exarcerbated during the MCO where people are isolated and stressed due to a drastic change in lifestyle including social, economic and familial tensions.

Finally, the most effective weapon against sexual harassment is prevention. It is very important that those who have the most contact with members of the public who are in isolation, must be aware of what constitutes sexual harassment. This means that  frontliners, authorities, aid volunteers, post and delivery persons should not be conducting themselves in a manner that can comes across as sexual harassment. Perpetrators must know that their conduct or actions of sexual harassment is not acceptable and that they will be held accountable for their actions.

Therefor AWAM urges YB Rina Harun and YB Siti Zailah to advocate for the tabling of the Sexual Harassment Bill in the coming Parliament seating in May, which should have been tabled in parliament in March had there not been a change in government. The Bill, the outcome of years’ of advocacy and research by women’s groups  for the last 18 years, is expected to close the gaps in the current laws. This will allow women and the police to take legal action against perpetrators of sexual harassment. The passing of the Bill will be a positive longstanding act of public policy as its outcomes will continue long after the MCO is over.

AWAM urges the Home Minister Dato’ Seri Hamzah Zainuddin and Minister of Women, Family and Community Development YB Rina Harun to work together to address sexual harassment during the MCO – especially taking into account that the current laws on sexual harassment are inadequate and does not specifically cover sexual harassment in public places unless it involves sexual assault.

AWAM also urges members of the public to come forth and share their stories on sexual harassment. In the case at the quarantine center, the woman who had allegedly been sexually harassed spoke out about the incident. This resulted in other women in the center disclosing similar incidents of sexual harassment. This enable the management of the center to take the neccessary steps to stop the harassment.

Studies show that 1 in 4 Malaysians experience sexual harassment and that 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of gender-based violence in their lives, globally. We must keep  women safe by making spaces free of sexual harassment, especially during this challenging period of the MCO.

Issued by  by:
All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)

24 APRIL 2020