If you know or suspect that a woman co-worker was being sexually harassed, assaulted or abused at your workplace, would you do or say something?
United Nations Population Fund Malaysian representative for Malaysia and Thailand Marcela Suazo says victims of sexual harassment often keep quiet because they don’t feel supported by their co-workers and fear retaliation from their employers.
“If everyone, both men and women, stand together and not just a small group of women … it will send a message to colleagues, their employers and the government that this is not tolerable. Sexual harassment is not permissible.
“It is important that when we see something, we say something. We must all stand up against harassment,” said Suazo.
Based on Public Service Department statistics, there were 47 sexual harassment cases in the public sector and 64 in the private sector between 2015 and 2017. Actual figures are likely to be higher, say activists, as many victims do not report harassment for fear of a backlash.
Cases of workplace sexual harassment have hogged the headlines for much of this year.
In March, former employees of World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF Malaysia) shared their stories of sexual harassment, claiming that complaints were “swept under the carpet” by the management of the non-government organisation. In July, media reports of an orthopaedic head at a government hospital had sexually harassed several housemen in a hospital in the Klang Valley – after an investigation by the Health Ministry, the predator was terminated from service.
Most recently, radio station BFM was hit by sexual harassment allegations.
While co-workers and friends may want to speak up for victims, lawyer and women’s rights activist Meera Samanther cautions whistle-blowers against revealing details about victims without their consent.
“The intention may be to blow the whistle on the harassment but consent of the victim must be obtained first. We don’t know what hurdles the victims may have to go through once their identities have been revealed. Maybe they haven’t told their families about it. Consent is important,” she says.
The high volume of cases being reported, say activists, demonstrates the need for a law on sexual harassment which will not just protect victims but prevent abuse.
For legal advocate and the founder of Speak Up Animah Kosai, policies and laws must support women who have been harassed.
In an article titled “Men, this is Why Women Stay Silent When Sexually Harassed”, Animah writes:
“In many organisations, HR tends to start from a place of disbelief. He is innocent until proven guilty. I’m knocking that out right now.
“If you are investigating sexual harassment within an organisation or industry, you are not required to follow the high standard of proof of a criminal trial. Your duty is to protect your employees.
“You start by believing her.”