Sexual harassment – what to do about it

It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, if you’re the victim or a bystander: If you know about sexual harassment, report it. A study conducted in 2002 by the All Women’s Action Society (Awam) unveiled this sobering statistic: 35% of respondents in Malaysia had been on the receiving end of one or more forms of sexual harassment.

That means that almost four women out of 10, in a country where women make up 46% of the workforce (as reported in the last quarter of 2011).

There have been many promises to promote gender equality in the workplace, and where better to start than by cracking down on one of the most common forms of discrimination faced by women nationwide?

What is sexual harassment?

There are many forms of sexual harassment, each of them just as humiliating and offensive as the next. The Human Resources Ministry's Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (1999) lists sexual harassment as:

Verbal harassment: Offensive or suggestive remarks, comments, jokes, jesting and vulgar sounds. Fact: Victims are often accused of “overreacting” when they complain about sexual harassment of this nature.

Non-verbal/gestural harassment: Leering or ogling with suggestive overtones, licking lips or holding or eating food provocatively, hand signals or sign language denoting sexual activity or persistent flirting.

Visual harassment: Showing pornographic materials, drawing sex-based sketches or writing sex-based letters, and flashing.

Psychological harassment: Repeated unwanted social invitations, relentless proposals for dates or physical intimacy.

Physical harassment: Inappropriate touching, patting, pinching, stroking, brushing up against the body, hugging, kissing, fondling and sexual assault.

In terms of sexual harassment in the workplace, “the workplace” is defined not just on the premises where one works; it includes whichever place a person is on the job.

What do I do about it?

Tell the harasser that what he’s doing is sexual harassment, that you don’t like it, and you want it to stop. To avoid any miscommunication, do not smile or make it seem like you’re joking or teasing. If you’re truly uncomfortable with the situation, make sure the other party is aware of it. If the harasser does not back off and cease all unwanted attentions immediately, talk to someone who can help: A superior, human resource officer or an employee or union representative should be able to help or at least point you in the direction of help.

Additionally, you should record the time, date, location and nature of the offence. You could use the information and send the offender an official letter of complaint in writing stating that you consider the treatment you’ve been receiving as harassment, and if it continues you will be forced to make a report with HR.

If you do make a report, keep those times and dates handy because you and the offender could be cross-examined as sexual harassment accusations are not taken lightly. Do not delete any form of written or digital harassment like email and text messages, pictures or drawings as they can all be used as evidence.

If there is no avenue for you to report such cases within your company, you can make a police report under the Penal Code, section 509 that states:

“Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any words, makes any sound or gesture or exhibit any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or such gesture or object shall be seen by such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to five years or with fine, or with both.”

The Ministry of Human Resources' Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace has been adopted by a small number of employers, so do check if your employer follows this code.

Before, during or after the report is made, you can always turn to a women’s NGO like Awam or the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) for guidance and support.

Most victims don’t report cases of harassment because they are in subordinate positions or they fear reprisal and the backlash from the offender, colleagues and even family members. This is understandable. However, if you know of a case of sexual harassment or are a victim yourself, you should speak up, either to the victim to offer support and help, or to authorities if you are the individual involved.