Know Your Rights - Sexual Harassment
Anna* works as web-designer in an IT company. In the past few weeks, one of her project members, James*, began asking her out for dates. Anna was not romantically interested in James, and she declined his offer politely each time. Despite Anna's continued rejections, James relentlessly pursued her by hanging around her desk, sending her suggestive e-cards and SMS-es, intentionally brushing his body against her when they are in a corridor, staring across the office at her for hours, calling her "honey buns" and being around wherever Anna was. This made Anna extremely uncomfortable and embarrassed. She began to dread going to work and was suffering from insomnia. She also began to develop headaches in the morning and found it difficult to concentrate on her work. Anna did not want things to become strained at work, but was extremely agitated over the harassment. James began to tell all her ther colleagues that she was "his" and threatened to beat up anyone who dared to show any interest in her. One evening, when Anna's team had to work late, James grabbed hold of her and tried to molest her when the other colleague went out of the room for a moment. She screamed and the colleague came running back. James told him that she was being a "tease" and stormed off. Anna did not go to work the next day. She was at her wits end as to what she could do.
You may have had a similar experience at your workplace, and perhaps had tried to brush it off by ignoring it, and hoped that it would pass. Sometimes, the harasser might be someone in a superior position, with power over salary and position, who attempts to coerce you, as a subordinate, to grant him sexual favours. This is sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment means any repeated unwelcomed verbal, non-verbal, visual, psychological or physical conduct of a sexual nature that causes the victim to be intimidated, frightened and/or humiliated. It can take different forms; in example, stares which concentrates on parts of the body like breasts and hips, remarks with double and sexual meaning (e.g. "If you bend over, I'll give you a raise), derogatory or demeaning remarks on women's bodies, wolf-whistling, touching, squeezing, pinching, tickling, "accidentally" brushing private parts of the body, making sexual advances and/or asking a woman outright for a date and promising a raise in reward.
Sexual harassment is a serious problem. It is not about mutual attraction or flirting, but abuse of power. Sexual harassment occurs in a sexist environment where women are devalued and lewd remarks and/or gestures targetted at women are considered "natural" and acceptable. This intolerable social behaviour creates a hostile working environment which has real implications on productivity, effeciency and employee turnover, and can also result in stress related physical injuries in the victims. It can have a very destructive effect on the workplace, and therefore should be recognised as a workplace issue. If you are an employer, adopt a sexual harassment policy as a preventive measure to promote a healthy and respectful working environment. If you know of anyone who is sexually harassed, give your support. Let her know that it is not her fault, and remind her that sexual harassment is discrimination. Listen without judgement, and refer her to where she can get help.
Unfortunately, there is no law in Malaysia that deals specifically with sexual harassment. The Joint Action Group against Violence Against Women (JAG) are lobbying for the legislation of sexual harassment, which requires employers to prevent sexual harassment by creating in-house mechanisms to address the matter, and provides timely and meaningful access to legal redress to victims. In the meantime, there is a Code of Practice on Sexual Harassment, introduced in 1999 by the Ministry of Human Resources that has been adopted by a small percentage of employers.
What to do if you are sexually harassed:
- Trust your instincts.
- Tell the harasser clearly, directly and firmly that you object to the behaviour and you do not like it.
- Record each incident in writing. Describe the incident in full detail and include the date, time, place, witnesses (e.g. colleagues) and evidence (e.g. e-mails etc.) if there are any. These are important as evidence when action is taken against the harasser.
- Get emotional support. Talk to a sympathetic friend or co-workers.
- Make a formal complaint in writing. If your company has procedures for resolving sexual harassment complaints, go through the appropriate channel. If not, go to your manager. If your manager is the harasser, go to his superior, as well as your personnel officer and union representative. If there's no one you feel safe talking to, or if your complaint is ignored, you can make a police report, or seek help from the Labour Ministry.
- If you are still uncertain as to what to do, call up a women's NGO that provide counselling and advice for further information.
*Names changed to protect WAO's client's confidentiality.
Women's Aid Organisation - 20 Years of Service to Women and Children
Fortnightly Column by WAO on Sunday Mail