Sexual Harassment

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment consists of a single or a series of unwelcoming conduct of a sexual nature that is perceived by the recipient to be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive, with the intent to violate the dignity of the recipient.

What Are The Different Forms of Sexual Harassment?


  • Unwanted and inappropriate touching (stroking, groping, rubbing, patting, fondling, kissing, hugging, etc)
  • Standing too close, in a way that is unwelcoming for the recipient


  • Offensive or sexually suggestive remarks, jokes, sounds (such as catcalling) and expressions (such as ‘sayang’)
  • Sexually inappropriate comments about the person’s body or appearance
  • Unwanted questions on personal life (not limited to sex) that are invasive to the recipient


  • Unwanted leering, ogling or staring; peeping toms
  • Sexually suggestive hand signals or sign language
  • Flashing or mooning


  • Displays of obscene materials (e.g., drawings, text in physical materials, images) that are unwanted and sexual in nature


  • Repeated and unwanted social invitations for dates or physical intimacy
  • Constant and unwanted offers or benefits (e.g., promotions or academic credits, long leave) on the condition of sexual favours


  • Receiving, sending or posting comments via online text, audio messages, images, videos, GIFs etc that are unwanted and sexual in nature (social media, messaging apps etc)
  • Pressuring or threatening someone to do the above 
  • Sharing someone else’s sexual photos, images or videos online directly or publicly without their express consent
What Are the Myths of Sexual Harassment?

“What’s the big deal? It’s only touching/catcalling/sexual jokes/flirting mah.”

  • On the contrary, it is a huge deal. Sexual harassment is about power imbalance, whereby the harasser makes the survivor feel degraded, humiliated, offended and intimidated through their actions.
  • Sexual harassment is also considered an offence (regardless of intention) when no express consent was provided by the recipient. For example, hugging is not an offence if both parties consented to it; but if one did not consent to hugging, then it is sexual harassment.   

“It’s normal in dramas to have guys grabbing you closer or swooping in to kiss you after pinning you to the wall. Isn’t that what girls secretly enjoy/like?”

  • Absolutely not true. These ‘romantic’ scenes omit the most important elements of consent and respect for one’s physical boundaries. They also distort the reality of discomfort that women and girls actually feel when their physical boundaries are violated.
  • In short, no means NO.   

“How else can you get dates leh, if you don’t keep asking the person out?” 

  • This is another misconception that is commonly propagated in mass media. Any interaction or relationship should be based on mutual respect and consent. If the recipient feels uncomfortable upon being asked out on a date, respect their decision and stop doing so.     

“Only young women or girls get harassed lah.”

  • Any woman can get sexually harassed – be it young or old, attractive or unattractive. Gender stereotypes can bias perceptions of who can be harassed. This is substantiated in a study published by the American Psychological Association in 2021, which found that people are more apt to believe sexual harassment claims by women who are young, conventionally attractive, appear and act feminine.   
  • Men and boys also get harassed. They are in fact less likely to disclose to others about the incident or seek help, as they may be perceived as ‘weak’ in light of still-prevalent gender roles of men as strong, aggressive and macho beings.  

“All perps of sexual harassment are men.” 

  • The root of sexual harassment is power imbalance and it does not necessarily operate only along gender relations. Power can also manifest in other contexts whereby the harasser, regardless of sex or gender identity, is at a higher position or has greater influence than the survivor and abuses that power. An example would be that a female supervisor asks a male subordinate for sexual favours with the promise of a promotion.    

“You just ignore it lah, then it will stop mah.”

  •  On the contrary, this may be seen as an indication that you are fine with it or even like/enjoy what the perpetrator is doing, which can only encourage them to continue harassing you.   

“Why you wear short skirts/get so friendly with that person/stay out so late alone with that person? You asked for it lah.” 

  • This is victim-blaming. By scrutinising survivors on the basis of these factors, one is essentially holding them responsible for being sexually harassed, when accountability should by right be fully placed on the harasser for committing the violation. It also distorts the fact that survivors experience sexual harassment regardless of what they wear, where they are at what time of the day, what they do or drink, or who they are with. 

“I heard that women like to falsely make up stories of sexual harassment so that they can get back at people they don’t like or claim benefits.” 

  • Whilst false claims do exist and should be acknowledged, this should not discount the fact that sexual harassment underrreporting remains disproportionately more pervasive.
  • A 2005 study on reported sexual violence cases by the United Kingdom Home Office, which is believed to be the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, found that 4% of cases are found or suspected to be false, which is of low prevalence. Even then, these cases included those that were recorded as “no crime” or “unfounded” due to insufficient corroborating evidence. This investigative outcome would be common in many sexual harassment cases (verbal, gestural, even physical) where definitive evidence is hard to procure.    
What Are the Effects of Sexual Harassment?

Disclaimer: Please note that this list is non-exhaustive.


  • Shame, embarrassment 
  • Fear and feelings of being unsafe
  • Self-blame, guilt, and humiliation
  • Sense of helplessness
  • Reduced self-esteem or self-worth 
  • Reduced self-confidence 
  • Serious mental health issues such as depression; anxiety; phobias; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); self-harm; suicidal ideation; attempted or completed suicide; dysfunctional behavioural patterns in an attempt to cope with the trauma such as alcoholism, addiction etc


  • Unexplainable stomach aches, headaches, and fatigue 
  • Changes in appetite and sleep 


  • Isolation from friends or family 
  • Difficulties establishing relationships of trust/that are intimate with others 


  • Inability to concentrate 
  • Decreased academic or job satisfaction
  • Decline in academic performance or work productivity 
  • Absenteeism 
  • Transfer from educational institution or organisation
  • Resignation or dismissal from workplace 
What Are Our Current Laws on Sexual Harassment?

Currently, our laws address sexual harassment in a piecemeal fashion:

Penal Code 

  • Section 354
    • Assault or use of criminal force with the intent to outrage the person’s modesty
    • Imprisonment for a maximum of ten years or fine or whipping, or any two of such punishments
  • Section 355
    • Assault or use of criminal force with the intent to dishonour a person, otherwise than on grave provocation
    • Imprisonment for a maximum of two years or fine, or both
  • Section 377D
    • Outrages on decency – commission (actual or attempted), or abetment
    • Imprisonment for a maximum of two years
  • Section 509 
    • Word or gesture that is intended to insult the person’s modesty
    • Imprisonment for a maximum of five years or fine, or both

Current gaps: 

  • High burden of proof. The judge needs to have beyond reasonable doubt that the case is of sexual harassment.
  • Expensive litigation fees and not every survivor has the financial means to appoint a solicitor  


Employment Act 1955 (Sexual harassment was included since 2012)

  • Section 2 
    • Definition of workplace sexual harassment
  • Section 81A-81G, Part XVA 
    • An employer’s obligation to inquire into sexual harassment complaints and allegations, as well as conditions for refusal to conduct inquiries   
    • Action that can be taken against the alleged perpetrator (employer or employee), if the allegation  is proven 
    • Procedures and effects of decision(s) may be referred to the Director General of Labour 

Current gaps:

  • Legislative coverage is only limited to individuals in employer-employee relationships, and employment contexts. 
  • Substantial leeway is given to employers in investigations of complaints and determination of investigation outcome. On the other hand, there are no specific clauses on protection or compensation for the complainant (generally, internal policies shall be made by the HR department). 
  • The Employment Act 1955 is only applicable in the Peninsular. Sabah and Sarawak have their respective Employment Ordinances. 


Industrial Relations Act 1967 

  • Section 20 
    • Representations for reinstatement or compensation through the Industrial Relations Department for unfair dismissal or job resignation due to sexual harassment, if it is proven to be unjust 


Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (1999)

  • Definition of sexual harassment 
  • Forms of sexual harassment (i.e., verbal, gestural, visual, psychological, physical)
  • Recommendation to employers to set up in-house mechanisms to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, specifically: 
    • Policy statement prohibiting sexual harassment in the organisation
    • A clear definition of sexual harassment 
    • Disciplinary rules and penalties against the perpetrator and those who make false accusations
    • Complaint mechanisms
    • Protective and remedial measures for the survivor 
    • Educational programmes to raise awareness of sexual harassment among all organisational members
  • Involvement of and collaboration with trade unions to promote acceptance and compliance of employees with in-house organisational sexual harassment mechanisms 

Current gaps:

  • This is only a guideline and organisations are not mandated to set up in-house mechanisms to prevent and address sexual harassment.
  • This guideline applies to employment contexts only. 


Public Service Department Circular (updated as of 2018)

  • Categories of sexual harassment (i.e., attempts to get close to someone sexually, asking for sexual favours, sexual harassment that is threatening, sexual harassment that is insulting or offensive)
  • Forms of sexual harassment (i.e., verbal, gestural, visual, psychological, physical)
  • Actions that can be taken by the complainant, Integrity Unit, Head of Department and the counsellor/psychologist
  • Effects of sexual harassment
  • Implementation of preventive programmes on sexual harassment

Current gaps:

  • Though comprehensive, this circular is only for the workplace in the public sector and does not cover sexual harassment in the private sector 


Communications & Multimedia Act 1998

  • Section 233 
    • Soliciting and sharing obscene content
    • Coverage of online sexual harassment. Example: “by means of any networks facilities or network service or applications service knowingly (i) makes, creates or solicits; and (ii) initiates the transmission of, any comment, request, suggestion or other communication which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”

Current gaps:

  • Vague and unclear definition of the term “obscene”
  • No specific guidelines pertaining to sexual harassment in the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998 — it can be used to address threats, as well as abusive and offensive language and conduct online.

Special Feature: Tort of Sexual Harassment (2016)

What Can I Do If I’m Sexually Harassed (Physically/Online)?

1. Firmly inform the harasser that their behaviour is unwanted and that you want them to stop doing it immediately. Here are some examples of how you can do so:

  • “I do not want or like what you are doing. Please stop.”
  • “I feel really uncomfortable when you do/say/etc. to me like this. Please don’t do this anymore.”
  • “If you touch/say/do this again, I will be reporting this to (a specific individual or Party)

2. Document the incident. Include details such as place, date, time, nature of harassment, the harasser, and your relationship to that person. Save any evidence that you may have from the incident (notes, messages, photos, audio recordings, videos etc)

3. Confide in someone whom you trust (parents, friends, etc)

4. Reach out to women’s rights NGOs such as AWAM to discuss your case. AWAM provides free legal information and counselling services. 

5. Lodge a police report.

  • Your report should contain the following details:
    • When did the incident occur?
    • Where did the incident occur?
    • What and how did the incident happen?
    • Who was involved in the incident?
    • Any physical, psychological or emotional impact(s)?
    • Why is the report being lodged – do you seek for further action to be taken (action report), or do you only intend for your case to be documented (case report)? 
  • You can contact AWAM at 016-2374221 or 016-2284221 for support and guidance on drafting the police report. 
  • You should receive a copy of the police report lodged. 
  • If you are filing an action report: 
    • The police would have to refer to existing sections in the Penal Code (PC) to decide if the alleged perpetrator falls within any specific provisions or offences in the PC, as there is currently no specific sexual harassment offence in Malaysian legislation,. Hence, sexual harassment cases would be treated similar to sexual offence cases.
    •  Investigation outcomes will be submitted to the Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP), who will decide whether to charge the alleged perpetrator for the crime committed. If there is sufficient evidence, the alleged perpetrator will be charged in court.

For online sexual harassment, can also lodge a complaint with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC). For more information on the steps to do so: 

It is advisable to first lodge the complaint with MCMC, and then make a police report with the MCMC complaint attached.

What Can I Do If I’m Sexually Harassed At My Workplace?
  • Document the incident. Include details such as place, date, time, nature of harassment, the harasser and your relationship to that person. Save any evidence that you may have from the incident (notes, messages, photos, audio recordings, videos etc). 
  • Lodge a written complaint to your Human Resources (HR) Department. Include all incident details and evidence that you have collected in the written complaint. You have all the rights to ask for an inquiry, as per Part XVA of the Employment Act 1955. Upon receiving the complaint, your employer will need to conduct an internal inquiry or investigations, with action taken against the harasser if  “sexual harassment is proven”. 
  • If your employer fails to take action, you can refer the matter to the Director-General of Labour (DGL) – . Do ensure that a copy of this complaint is sent to your employer as well, so that they will be aware of the seriousness of this matter. Upon receiving your complaint, the Labour Department will direct your employer to conduct the necessary inquiries and submit a report within one month. If a complaint is made against a sole proprietor, the DGL will conduct the inquiry. You will be informed of any decisions made as soon as practicable. 
  • If you are dismissed due to sexual harassment, you can lodge a complaint with the Industrial Relations Department (IRD) within 60 days of the dismissal citing unfair dismissal and requesting to be reinstated, as per Section 20 of the Industrial Relations Act. The IRD will call for a meeting between you and your employer, whereby the employer will be required to prove that the dismissal was justified. If found to be the contrary, the IRD will recommend reinstatement or compensation in lieu. If no settlement is reached, the case will be referred to the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) for further action. Your case shall be withdrawn, if you fail to attend any of the meetings without a justified reason. 
  • If you are forced to resign due to sexual harassment because of retaliation or your employer’s inaction, you can still lodge a complaint of ‘constructive dismissal’ with the IRD. In such cases, you will need to prove that you have exhausted various avenues to put a stop to the sexual harassment.
  • Reach out to women’s rights NGOs such as AWAM. Through AWAM’s free legal information and counselling services, you can explore options and decide on what steps to take. 
How Can We Stop Sexual Harassment?

1. Be an active bystander. Practise the 5Ds:

  • Direct: Confront the harasser, name the behaviour and ask them to stop harassing the survivor
  • Distract: Interrupt the incident. For example, get the survivor out of the situation by pretending to know them and telling them that they are needed elsewhere
  • Delegate: Ask help from others (e.g., teachers, colleagues, parents, supervisors etc) to intervene
  • Delay: Check in on the survivor after the incident has occurred. Provide them with emotional support and information on any legal or counselling support services that you know. Encourage them to seek help 
  • Document: Record the incident and collect evidence. Pass these on to the survivor so that they can use them to pursue further action 

*Make sure that you feel safe and comfortable carrying out any of the above actions.  

2. Share with others and spread awareness on what you understand about sexual harassment and what others can do if they or someone they know are sexually harassed  

3. Support the implementation of anti-sexual harassment policies in your organisation or educational institution

4. Support campaigns on the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill

Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill

Why We Need an Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill?

Why We Need an Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill? 

Sexual harassment is prevalent, happens to anyone in public and online spaces

  • In the 2021 AWAM-Cent-GPS survey involving 1056 young women respondents aged 18-29:
    • 79% experienced verbal sexual harassment at least once when walking on streets
    • 71% received unwanted sexual messages at least once on social media
    • 57% experienced unwanted touching
    • 44% experienced or witnessed their teachers making sexually provocative jokes
    • 18% experienced unwanted touching and sexual provocations from their family members
    • 10% experienced sexual harassment in elevators 

[hyperlink ‘AWAM-Cent-GPS survey’ to PDF of survey findings]

  • In a 2020 sexual harassment survey conducted by AWAM among 156 Malaysian university students:
    • 46.8% of respondents were sexually harassed. Among these respondents, 79.5% were women, whilst 20.5% were men. 
  • Other surveys also depict high sexual harassment prevalence, such as:


Our current laws do not adequately address sexual harassment 

  • Limited and unclear definition of sexual harassment
    • Section 509 of the Penal Code: “insult the modesty of any person” and “intrudes upon the privacy of such person”
    • No specific coverage of online sexual harassment in the Communication and Multimedia Act 1998
  • Limited coverage 
    • In the workplace among employers and employees in the Peninsular only, as per the Employment Act 1955. In the case of the Public Service Department Circular, it is only restricted to the workplace in the public sector
    • Although the Penal Code covers everyone, high burden of proof leads to the likelihood of the case being heard in court
  • Absence of legally-mandated obligation by the public and private sector to establish in-house policies and mechanisms to prevent and address sexual harassment
    • The Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment only recommends employers to set up policy statements prohibiting sexual harassment in the organisation, protective and remedial measures (including complaint measures), as well as educational programmes (including training) to raise awareness of sexual harassment at all levels within the organisation
  • Non-survivor-centric redress mechanisms
    • Court hearings are time-consuming, expensive and deprive survivors of their privacy
    • High burden of proof –  the judge needs to have beyond reasonable doubt (i.e., be more than 100% sure) that the case is of sexual harassment
    • Even if a civil suit is pursued under the Tort of Sexual Harassment, only monetary compensation is possible as a remedy. Aside from not being an efficient deterrent for perpetrators who can afford to pay, this compensation also does not take into account the reality that not all survivors seek for monetary gain (e.g., some may just want an apology or acknowledgement of wrongdoing from the perpetrator, etc)
    • Under the Employment Act 1955, employers are given leeway in internal investigations of complaints and determination of investigation outcome. On the other hand, there are also no specific clauses on protection or compensation for the complainant


We need a survivor-centric Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill. 

Our Wishlist for the Bill

The Bill should:

  • Have a comprehensive definition of sexual harassment that focuses on the survivor’s experience and includes all forms of the violation
    • An example would be: “a single or a series of unwelcoming conduct of a sexual nature (i.e., physical, verbal, gestural, psychological, visual, online) that is perceived by the recipient to be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive, with the intent to violate the dignity of the recipient”
  • Cover sexual harassment for all persons in all contexts (including public and online spaces, as well as educational institutions)
  • Mandate the public and private sector to come up with internal anti-sexual harassment policies and conduct education programmes (including training) to raise organisational awareness of sexual harassment
  • Mandate the establishment of survivor-centric redress mechanisms 
    • The set-up of a tribunal to address sexual harassment complaints 
      • Legal representation is not required (hence cheaper and faster) 
      • Survivor’s privacy is protected 
      • A wide range of remedies is available
      • Standard of proof is based on ‘balance of probabilities’. This takes the reality of little to no evidence that is seen in most sexual harassment cases into account
      • The Tribunal panel should also consist of experts in sexual harassment and gender issues, aside from legal practitioners 
  • Vicarious liability, whereby employers are held liable for not taking reasonable steps to prevent or address sexual harassment complaints, and are prevented from acting against persons who report sexual harassment 


We have been advocating for the passing of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill for at least 30 years, since its conceptualisation. 


  • 1990s: The draft legislation was initiated by the Women’s Centre for Change, with AWAM’s input. Members of AWAM, Betty Yeoh and Siu Ching, used to take buses to Penang to meet up with Zarizana (back then the President of WCC) to work on the draft legislation.
  • 2001: The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (KPWKM) was established and the draft legislation was submitted by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG). However, the Ministry under Dato Sharizat’s purview did not really prioritise the Bill.
  • 2002: The draft legislation was revised and updated by JAG (after input from other countries at an International Labour Organisation conference).
  • 2002-2010: Despite discussions with stakeholders, there was no progress on the Bill.
  • 2010: There were discussions of having a law on sexual harassment by 2013 in the Transformation Laboratory initiative (to boost social and economic environments nationally) conducted by PEMANDU, in order to support women’s entry/return to the labour force. 
  • 2012: Whilst the standalone legislation did not emerge, the Employment Act 1955 was amended by the Ministry of Human Resources to include sexual harassment at the workplace (Part 15, Section 81 a-g). Significance: the Act does not confine protection to survivors earning below RM2000, as long as there is an employer-employee contract in place. 
  • 2017: A revised draft Bill was requested by KPWKM (under the Barisan Nasional government), as the dormant Bill no longer fit the current context. JAG and NCWO reviewed the Bill, with the drafting mainly done by AWAM, AWL and Young Women Making Change.
  • 2018: The Pakatan Harapan government included upholding gender equality in their mandate, including passing the anti-SH Bill in GE14. In December 2018, the Deputy Minister of KPWKM Hannah Yeoh announced that KPWKM will wrap up its 3-month study into the feasibility of a proposed anti-Sexual Harassment Act by end of January 2019 [hyperlink:
  • 2019: KPWKM spearheaded a Special Project Team (SPT) to finalise the Bill. The SPT consisted of multiple stakeholders, including women’s rights civil society organisations (CSOs) (e.g., AWAM, WAO, NCWO), other CSOs (e.g. IKRAM), other ministerial agencies and the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM). In February 2019, it was announced that the Bill would not be tabled in March 2019, as the feasibility study results were still under scrutiny.
  • 2020-2021: KPWKM under the Pakatan Harapan government affirmed that the Bill would be tabled in March 2020. [hyperlink:] After the change in government, this was met by further delays that was announced by the Minister of KPWKM, Rina Harun.

September 2021: KPWKM is waiting for approval from the AGC before the Bill is brought to the Cabinet for approval. “It will then be tabled for first reading in Parliament, expected to be by the end of this year”. [Hyperlink: