While the #MeToo movement empowers victims of sexual harassment, there’s still some taboo surrounding the topic in our part of the world. But the sacking of two BFM radio station employees last January over alleged sexual misconduct, shines the spotlight on how we should deal with this issue moving forward. Here are a few tips to help you through a sexual harassment case.
Read the signs
Sometimes it can be difficult to know what exactly is classified as sexual harassment and what isn’t. Regardless of where it happened, the three key elements of sexual harassment are: (1) unwanted, (2) of a sexual nature, and (3) offensive, humiliating or threatening to a person’s well-being. If your situation ticks all these boxes, then it might be time to speak up.
Trust your gut
Not all sexual harassment offensives are straight up obvious. Advocacy and Communications Officer of Women’s Aid Organisation, Tan Heang-Lee, says that some acts could also be subtle and insidious, a main factor on why some people may doubt and second-guess themselves. If you feel this way, listen to your instincts. If something feels off, it’s likely a red flag.
Let the person know that their behaviour is making you feel uncomfortable. If at work, inform the management and request that they intervene in handling the offender. The same goes if you are a witness to sexual harassment, speak up and support the affected person. Some people might turn a blind eye to stay out of trouble, but in most cases, people who lend their support might help to diffuse the situation and demonstrate that the offender’s behaviour is totally out of bounds.
Sometimes it may seem easier to keep quiet in hopes that the perpetrator would stop offending you, but it doesn’t work that way in most cases. Ignoring could also be misinterpreted as you don’t mind them behaving that way around you. Be very clear with your actions and words and tell them to stop.
Collect as much evidence as you can
Heang-Lee suggests that the first step you should take is to confide in someone you really trust. He or she can then help to verify your story if you choose to take action down the road. The next step is to keep any evidence of the harassment, such as emails, texts and if possible, voice recordings.
What if I have absolutely no physical evidence?
The All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) strongly encourages people to write down their testimony of what happened and include as many details as possible such as the date, time, all the individuals involved and so on. Besides that, find witnesses or other people within your organisation with similar experiences, as sleazeballs often target more than one person.
Know your company’s policies
The Employment Act defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal, visual, gestural or physical, directed at a person which is offensive or humiliating or is a threat to his well-being, arising out of and in the course of his employment”. Usually, cases should be reported to the human resources department, although some organisations might have specific policies and reporting mechanisms when it comes to misconduct in the workplace.
What if my employer dismisses my plea?
The Employment Act mandates employers to investigate sexual harassment complaints, but if your employer refuses to help you, Heang-Lee suggests making a report at the Labour Department. In 2016, the Federal Court introduced the tort of harassment into the justice system following a landmark sexual harassment case involving two Tabung Haji employees. With this new law, victims are now able to take matters into their own hands by bringing the case to court and potentially sue the offender.
What if it happened online?
Information and Communications Officer at AWAM, Herinza Syadza, suggests you keep all the evidence such as screenshots and note down the time frame of the cyber offences. With all the gathered information, you can then report to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).
Men should seek help too
Recent surveys show that it is not uncommon for men to get sexually harassed, especially in the workplace. Men are less likely to report their cases, most likely due to social stigmas, but the #MeToo movement is slowly helping to change that. Actors Terry Crews and Brendan Fraser have also gone public with their experience. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, most NGOs are aimed at helping women overcome such issues, but associations such as Women’s Aid Organisation also offer help to men, as well as helplines such as Talian Kasih and Befrienders KL.
Can the police help?
Criminal law in Malaysia doesn’t specifically cover sexual harassment. The police, however, can help if the case meets the criteria of other criminal offences such as “outrage of modesty”, “outrage of decency”, “assault” and “criminal intimidation”, which lean more towards cases of sexual assault. Section 509 under the penal code states that you can take action on “Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both.”
Contact a helpline
Not all of us can be lucky enough to have a shoulder to lean on in these dark times. If you’re in doubt over who you can ask for help, here are some hotline numbers you can call for advice and support:
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
hotline: 03-7956 3488 or WhatsApp: 018-988 8058
All Women’s Action Society (AWAM): 03-7877 4221
24 Hour Talian Kasih hotline: 15999
Befrienders Malaysia: 03-7956 8145
Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) hotline: 1-800-188-030