Awam has hardly set the record straight

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I am a member of ‘Hold Awam Accountable', a citizens' initiative that was set up to address the numerous injustices arising out of (All Women's Action Society) Awam's decision in March 2012 to install a perpetrator of sexual assault as the treasurer of Awam.

I am writing in response to the letter in Malaysiakini (Feb 6, 2013) headlined, "Awam says accusations are unfair, malicious."

Although Awam declared that it wished "to set the record straight", it has not done so. Instead, it has continued to obscure, obfuscate and omit facts in a further attempt to avoid accountability and to mislead the public as to what actually happened.

Allow me to address Awam's assertions point by point:

1. Awam referred to an incident that the victim "found offensive" but never specified what actually happened. The incident in question involved the current treasurer of Awam grabbing the breast of the victim.

Awam conducted an inquiry and confirmed that this sexual assault indeed happened as alleged by the victim, and states as such in its Outcome of Inquiry document.

Yet it allowed the perpetrator, an influential member of Awam and the women's movement, to become an office bearer of the organisation.

2. Awam omitted mentioning that it lied on Facebook by claiming that the victim's "allegations are unfounded".

Subsequently, Awam deleted these denials together with comments by concerned members of the public, but we have screenshots of these as evidence.

In its defence, Awam claimed that it deleted posts on its FB page out of concerns that it might be sued. However, since the comments were directed at Awam, the only party who would sue Awam would have been Awam.

Obviously, this explanation is a dubious excuse for having deleted posts that challenged Awam's position on this issue!

3. Awam saw it necessary to provide a backstory on how the inquiry was conducted. But how are these details relevant? Who cares whether Awam's domestic inquiry took one and half hours or two hours or even longer?

What we want to know is why, as a 'feminist' organisation, did Awam put into office a woman whom the organisation had itself found guilty of grabbing another woman's breast?

4. As for the perpetrator being "democratically elected", Awam omitted to mention that its members were not informed of the fact she had sexually assaulted a woman prior to her standing for elections.

Transparency is part of the democratic process so Awam was neither transparent nor democratic by hiding this aspect of the perpetrator's history.

5. Awam argued that it was a private issue between the two parties. Firstly, having taken on the case, Awam cannot in retrospect argue that it was a private issue. If Awam really believed this to be so, it should not have taken the case.

Secondly, the fact that Awam made the perpetrator an office-bearer means the issue cannot be seen as a private one as it raises questions of Awam's integrity as an organisation that serves and is answerable to the public.

Also, if Awam has not required the perpetrator to go for treatment, Awam is putting the women who go to it at risk of being molested by her. Again, this can hardly be regarded as a private issue because it is a matter of public safety.

Incidentally, Free Malaysia Today ran a report on Jan 26, 2013 headlined, "Need to address psychological part of rape" which quoted Awam spokesperson Lee Wei San as saying, "We need to see that rape is not a private matter between the individuals concerned, but a violation of human rights."

This being the case, why does Awam consider the grabbing of a woman's breast - which is a serious sexual violation - a private matter between two individuals?

6. Awam highlighted the fact that the victim was not an Awam member at the time of the sexual assault, as if it was doing the victim a huge favour by investigating her case. What does it matter whether she was a member or not?

Any ethical organisation would and should investigate a serious allegation against one of its members, whether or not the victim was a member of the organisation.

Is Awam saying that a sexual assault victim must be a member of Awam to warrant Awam's concern and involvement? Or that Awam is not bothered if one of its members commits sexual assault so long the victim is not an Awam member?

The real points of the case, which Awam has failed to address up till now, are as follows:

i) Why does Awam find it acceptable, as a 'feminist' organisation, to have someone who grabbed a woman's breast in a key position of trust?

ii) Why did Awam not disclose the perpetrator's sexual assault of the victim to its members when she was standing for elections?

iii) Why did Awam lie and defame the victim on its Facebook by claiming that the incident did not happen?

iv) Awam has claimed in its responses to people who have written in on this issue that the perpetrator's act was merely "misconduct" and not sexual harassment or sexual assault. But does this not clearly contradict its own website which defines sexual harassment as "receiving any unwanted conduct of sexual nature"?

v) If the perpetrator has not gone for treatment, why is Awam putting other women at risk of being molested by her?

vi) As an organisation that purports to help victims of sexual violence, how can Awam justify the fact that it has maligned and lied about a victim of a sexual assault, and protected her assailant instead? Isn't this gross hypocrisy?

Sadly, the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), of which Awam is a member organisation, took Awam's side by issuing a statement in Sunday Star (Sept 9, 2012) stating that it was "satisfied that due process took place" and agreed with Awam's finding that the breast-grabbing "amounted to 'misconduct' but not sexual harassment".

Incredibly, JAG did not see it fit to speak to the victim before issuing its statement and has not contacted her to this day.

For this matter to be truly resolved, JAG now needs to explain why it conducted a one-sided appraisal of the inquiry; and why it concurred with Awam that breast-grabbing was merely "misconduct." (Malaysian law, JAG's and Awam's own educational materials on sexual harassment and most people define such an act as sexual assault.)

Clearly, when women's organisations in Malaysia are choosing to protect a perpetrator of sexual assault rather than the victim, we are staring at a moral vacuum at the heart of the Malaysian social justice movement.

It now remains to be seen whether social activists are as committed to addressing corruption in its own ranks as with regards to the government and public figures.

LILIAN TAN is a member of the group Hold Awam Accountable.

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