Protect Our Students, Not Punish Them

Image courtesy of Free Malaysia Today

10 MAY 2021

The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), Bulan Sisters and Pertubuhan Pembangunan Kendiri Wanita dan Gadis (WOMEN:girls) is outraged by SMK Puncak Alam’s warning notice of expulsion to Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, especially in light of the lack of transparent penalties against the teacher who made the rape comments amongst his students in a class session on sexual harassment, where Ain was present.

There seems to be a string of unchecked and increasingly brazen displays of power by figures of authority within educational institutions in an attempt to punish Ain for speaking out about her teacher’s rape jokes. First, there were the online lewd comments about Ain’s body shape and breast size allegedly from teachers in response to her TikTok video. A week later, the Secretary-General of the National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) openly contested the widespread sexual harassment and rape culture in schools, when hundreds of current and former students have already come forward online with their violations experienced.

At the same time, disappointingly, key authorities have failed to take swift and concrete action to keep these perpetrators in check and address the deeply entrenched toxic culture of sexual harassment, rape and power abuse in educational institutions. Till now, the teacher who made the rape jokes is allowed to continue teaching, with no updates from the Ministry of Education (MoE) on the inquiry. Furthermore, despite expressions of zero-tolerance towards sexual harassment and rape in schools by the MoE, this stance has not been followed by public commitments to short-term or long-term solutions that address gender insensitivity and sexist attitudes within the country’s instituition of education.

In a scenario where the survivor is punished but not the perpetrators, we are now at risk of further regressing Malaysia’s understanding that Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is an act that devalues women. We are perpetuating the culture of victim-blaming and sending out the message that perpetrators can violate women with impunity. The government needs to understand that state structures and practises that condone acts of violence against women and/or do not provide adequate punitive actions against those who commit such acts, results in societies where women are subject to state-sanctioned violence. Is this the image that Malaysia wants to portray?

The process to support Ain, other students like her, and Malaysian women against the social ill that is GBV is not rocket science. The steps are clear. Firstly, MOE and the Malaysian government needs to focus on primary prevention, the aim of which is to stop violence before it happens. This is done by increasing awareness on issues of GBV and empowering women and men through trainings of leadership development and capacity building, to attempt to change the attitudes and behaviours that allow violence against women to occur,
The second priority area is to increase access of survivors of GBV to quality mental health and legal information services, all of which are publicly available at low cost, to build the resilience of women and girls under the cloud of GBV. The third priority area is linked to long-term solutions, which involves developing and reforming policies and legislation to prevent, respond to and punish all forms of violence against women.

In this day and age, gender-based violence is recognised as not only a form of discrimination against women and girls, but also a gross violation of fundamental human rights of freedom from violence and to bodily integrity. Having one’s voices heard in a non-violent manner is also a universal right that is enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights agreement that is also ratified by Malaysia since 1995.

If Ain’s expulsion is allowed to go unchecked, the MoE will be indirectly intimidating all women and girls in Malaysia into silence even after they have been violated. Ain did the right thing by calling out on rape jokes and the systemic culture of sexual harassment and rape. It is now MoE’s turn to do the right thing in upholding existing standard operating procedures (SOPs), which in principle place schoolchildren’s safety, well-being and best interest as the paramount consideration. The MoE must take action against the perpetrator and actively address the issue of systemic sexual harassment, bullying and rape culture in schools.

Endorsed by:

JAG Member Organisations:
1. All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
2. Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
3. EMPOWER Malaysia
4. Justice for Sisters
5. KRYSS Network
6. Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)
7. Sabah Women’s Action-Resource Group (SAWO)
8. Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS)
9. Sisters in Islam (SIS)
10. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
11. Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)

Other Organisations:
12. Bulan Sisters
13. Pertubuhan Pembangunan Kendiri Wanita dan Gadis (WOMEN:girls)