MALAYSIA needs the sexual harassment bill. Why?
Firstly, sexual harassment is harmful to individuals and society. Secondly, sexual harassment is prevalent in Malaysia. Thirdly, existing laws – including employment laws – are inadequate to address sexual harassment. Lastly, there is widespread support in Malaysia for a sexual harassment law.
Sexual harassment is harmful
Sexual harassment is a violation of a person’s rights and dignity. Sexual harassment causes mental and physical harm. Local cases illustrate this.
A houseman who was sexually harassed at a Malaysian hospital recounted in an interview with a local newspaper: “I was shocked and depressed. I cried, I was disgusted.”
A senior manager who was sexually harassed by her supervisor suffered migraines and pains in her leg, according to court transcripts.
These individual harms add up, and hurt society as a whole – in the form of lost productivity, strain on the healthcare system, and other costs.
The Sexual Harassment Bill will improve the rights and wellbeing of Malaysians. And committing to address sexual harassment will reflect positively on Malaysia’s international reputation.
Sexual harassment is prevalent
Research shows that sexual harassment is prevalent in Malaysia.
A 2019 YouGov survey estimated that 28% of Malaysians (including over a third of women) have experienced sexual harassment.
A 2020 survey by Vase.ai and Women’s Aid Organisation estimated that 62% of working women in Malaysia have experienced workplace sexual harassment.
Other surveys also suggest high prevalence of sexual harassment in Malaysia – including a 2020 survey by All Women’s Action Society on sexual harassment among university students, a 2021 survey by ENGENDER Consultancy on sexual harassment in public spaces, a 2021 survey by Sarawak Women for Women on cyber sexual harassment, and a 2019 survey by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.
Existing laws are inadequate
Malaysia has several laws relating to sexual harassment. These laws help, but are not adequate.
Laws that apply to all survivors
● A 2016 Federal Court decision established the tort of sexual harassment. While this is important, taking someone to civil court is expensive (costing thousands of ringgit), lengthy (can take years), and public (lack of confidentiality). Most survivors cannot afford this.
● The Penal Code and other criminal laws have offences related to sexual harassment. But many cases of sexual harassment – though wrong – may not amount to a crime; and online sexual harassment is not clearly addressed. Criminal investigations also require proof beyond a reasonable doubt – which some sexual harassment cases may not meet – and do not lead to remedies for survivors.
● An employee being sexually harassed can report it to their employer, under the Employment Act 1955. However, the Employment Act only applies to employers and employees – leaving out harassment involving job seekers, clients, etc. Further, the Labour Department only provides oversight if the employer refuses to investigate – there is no oversight of an investigation’s integrity or findings – or if the complaint is against a sole proprietor. The Employment Act also does not apply in Sabah and Sarawak (which have their own ordinances).
● An employee who is dismissed unfairly or resigns from employment as a result of sexual harassment can apply for reinstatement through the Industrial Relations Department. However, the survivor would have already lost their job, and suffered from the harassment.
● While employment laws can be amended to improve some aspects, some gaps cannot be addressed easily. For example, the Employment Act currently covers employees, and moves to widen the law to apply beyond employees have not succeeded. The Sexual Harassment Bill would build on – and should not conflict with – existing employment standards.
● In the 2019 YouGov survey, of those who experienced sexual harassment, 24% experienced it at the office. Crucially, a large portion of cases also happened at school or universities (22%), on public transport (23%), in shopping malls (12%), and in other places.
● But there are no laws or regulations on sexual harassment covering these other contexts.
A Sexual Harassment Bill – if drafted well – can help close these gaps in two main ways. First, by introducing adequate sexual harassment standards for all relevant sectors (including universities, public space operators, societies, companies, etc.).
Second, the Bill would introduce an independent oversight body to directly receive complaints about sexual harassment from anyone – easily and affordably.
There is widespread support for a sexual harassment law
A 2020 survey by Vase.ai, Undi18, Architects of Diversity, and WAO found that 89% of Malaysians agree that more policies are needed to ensure women are not subjected to sexual harassment in any context.
A diverse spectrum of NGOs support the Sexual Harassment Bill – including human rights, religious, education, youth, and other groups. Academicians specialising in labour and sexual harassment also support the Sexual Harassment Bill.
There is multi-partisan support for the Sexual Harassment Bill. In addition to the current government’s commitment to pass the Bill, both major political coalitions contesting the 13th general elections pledged to pass the Bill in their manifestos.
We urge the government to heed calls to end sexual harassment in Malaysia, and pass a robust Sexual Harassment Bill as soon as possible.
* The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is a coalition of 14 women’s rights organisations in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak.
* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.