The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) cautiously welcomes the announcement by the Minister of Women, Family, and Community Development, Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun, that the Sexual Harassment Bill will be tabled in Parliament this year. While there is an urgent need for sexual harassment legislation and JAG commends the government’s commitment to tabling it, in the interest of transparency, we hope that the Ministry will share the stated ‘improvements’ that have been made to the bill and engage in a dialogue with survivors and civil society organisations who work with survivors over any potential areas of concern.
The need for the Sexual Harassment Bill is more clear than ever during and in the aftermath of the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic and the necessary Movement Control Order (MCO) that was put in place to curb the spread of the virus have exposed and amplified many existing gender inequalities.
This has manifested in many forms, including in a sharp rise in physical and online gender-based violence observed firsthand by NGO service providers like All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and KRYSS Network. While enquiries to WAO’s Hotline multiplied by 3.5 times after the start of the MCO, AWAM has also received an increase in enquiries from young women seeking mental health support and information on legal and sexual rights. 23% of calls received on AWAM’s helpline were sexual harassment cases, of which more than 38% were online sexual harassment. KRYSS Network continues to receive complaints of online gender-based violence faced by victims resulting from acts of doxxing and non-consensual distribution of intimate images (NCII).
Even prior to the MCO, preliminary findings from a survey by ENGENDER Consultancy and Sisterhood Alliance of 544 respondents in Malaysia showed that 60.25% had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.
With the pandemic, everyday activities and access to critical services have become dependent on the use of technology, including in the realm of professional, educational, and social activities. A recent UN women publication cites research suggesting that as a result of online gender-based violence, women tend to restrict their online activities. Juana Jaafar’s research on online gender-based violence in Malaysia, “Voice, Visibility and a Variety of Viciousness” (EMPOWER, 2017) confirms that at least 50 per cent of women will either stop using social media or delete their accounts completely because of the violence and harassment they have faced, which means that online sexual harassment–in addition to the emotional and psychological impact on women–also hinders many other aspects of their lives.
The World Economic Forum has recognised that sexual harassment is a major factor as to why women opt out of the work force, and the impact of online gender-based violence is very much similar. Since the start of the panbdemic, women’s economic participation has already been further hindered. With children being home from school, ill or elderly family members requiring greater care, and more meals to prepare, women have had to take on an even greater share of unpaid care work and thus have had to further juggle personal and professional responsibilities, which has forced some women to leave the workforce altogether. With the current situation and the additional barriers to economic participation of lack of connectivity and lack of digital literacy, it is even more critical that proper protection and redress mechanisms are in place to ensure that women are not further forced to endure lost or reduced income as a result of sexual harassment.
The Sexual Harassment Bill is urgently needed to address these and other inequalities experienced by women, and which have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
The Sexual Harassment Bill must be inclusive, comprehensive, and expansive
Given the multi-faceted nature of sexual harassment and the diverse ways in which it manifests in both the physical and virtual world, the Sexual Harassment Bill must contain provisions to adequately protect and offer redress to all survivors of sexual harassment.
First and foremost, the bill must be inclusive in who is covered under the scope of the law. Any individual who experiences sexual harassment regardless of the context–whether professional, educational, religious, public, or private–must have the ability to seek protection and recourse. Furthermore, the bill must equally protect every person in Malaysia, regardless of location or legal status.
Second, the bill must be comprehensive in the way it defines sexual harassment. The definition of sexual harassment should include any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person harassed or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
Additionally, it must include all types of conduct, across all types of mediums, from physical conduct to implied or overt verbal, non-verbal, visual or gestural conduct, whether taking place in person or in the virtual world using any variety of platforms, from text, to Whatsapp, to social media, to video-conferencing technologies.
Finally, the bill must be expansive in the obligations it imposes and in the protections and redress mechanisms it affords to survivors. For example, this includes imposing a proactive duty on all organisations to implement a sexual harassment policy and ensure its employees, volunteers, members, etc. are thoroughly briefed on such policy, so that the law is not only reactive to incidents of harassment that have already transpired, but also proactive in preventing sexual harassment.
This also includes establishing a Sexual Harassment Tribunal to allow survivors to bring complaints of sexual harassment in a way that is less expensive, faster, and less burdensome. Many survivors of sexual harassment opt not to file a police report against their perpetrator, and simply want the harassment to stop or for their position prior to the harassment to be restored. The Tribunal must have the ability to grant a wide variety of remedies so that it is established as a viable alternative to filing a police report or going to civil court, and so survivors can access the necessary recourse in a streamlined way.
The road to the Sexual Harassment Bill has been long and winding, and the final result must keep survivors at the forefront
Sexual harassment has always been a serious issue faced by women in Malaysia, both online or offline. The enactment of an inclusive, comprehensive and expansive Sexual Harassment Bill will formally acknowledge the severity of the harm and the negative effect sexual harassment can have on women’s economic, public, and political participation, as well as on their personal lives.
JAG and other women’s groups have been leading the call for a Sexual Harassment Act since 2001, for nearly two decades and with multiple governments. We were optimistic at the commitment shown last year by the previous government not only to tabling the bill, but to engaging meaningfully with civil society throughout the process.
Similarly, we hope that the government, and the Ministry of Women in particular, will continue to engage with the women’s rights groups to ensure that the Sexual Harassment Bill that gets tabled in Parliament is tailored and responsive to the everyday realities of women in Malaysia, and that the bill ultimately serves its intended beneficiary–survivors of sexual harassment–in the best and most comprehensive way possible.
Endorsed by the following JAG member organisations:
- All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
- Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
- Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
- Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG)
- Justice for Sisters
- KRYSS Network
- Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)
- Perak Women for Women (PWW)
- Sisters in Islam (SIS)
- Sabah Women’s Action-Resource Group (SAWO)
- Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS)
- Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
About the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)
The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is a coalition of 14 women’s rights organisations in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak. Since 1985, we have been advocating for gender equality and social justice in Malaysia within a feminist framework. We leverage our diverse expertise and amplify women’s voices to raise public awareness and advocate for law reform. We uphold international human rights standards in promoting justice, equality, and non-discrimination.
For more information, please contact:
Natasha Dandavati, Head of Campaigns
Yap Lay Sheng, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer
firstname.lastname@example.org / 60182747042