LETTER | Hold schools accountable for sexual harassment of students

LETTER | The Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance Malaysia (RRAAM) stands in solidarity with various advocates, politicians and NGOs, to request that schoolteachers and administrators are held accountable for physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and verbal violence and abuses committed towards school children of all ages and genders; and to uphold sexual and reproductive health and rights of schoolchildren. 

That such abuses should occur in school settings diminishes the voice of the child and the child’s ability to be heard, even in the face of abuse.

According to the media, former and current national, religious and boarding school female students are subject to invasive period spot checks. Such spot checks include queuing in front of toilets to do vaginal swabs with cotton buds, tissues or fingers, ordering students to strip down to their underwear to examine their sanitary pads, and the groping of buttocks or between their legs to feel for pads by teachers, wardens or school prefects.

Additionally, according to news reports, male students have been groped in the genital area and threatened to have their faces superimposed over the bodies of pornography actresses as punishments for not knowing the lyrics of the school anthem and other minor offences in school.

In another news, a 17-year-old schoolgirl claimed that her physical and health education male teacher joked that “if you want to rape, rape (someone) above 18 years old instead of (someone) below 18 years old”, who later also received rape threats from her male classmates for sharing the incident online.

It is worth noting that sexual harassment is essentially an unequal manifestation of power relations. It is deeply rooted in societal interpretation of masculinity and femininity that exacerbates gender stereotypes, usually against women and girls, and sometimes on men and boys too. 

Sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, that is perceived by the survivor to be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, is committed. Such harassment violates the dignity of the survivors. 

Whilst the perpetrators involved may or may not have sexual intent, such exposure and/or violations of bodily parts, through acts of mental humiliation and violations of dignity, cause traumatic impact to schoolchildren, regardless of age and gender.

These atrocious acts are punishable under Section 354 of the Penal Code for outrage of modesty. Given that most survivors were or are minors at the time when the offences were committed, perpetrators are also subject to action under the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017. 

That perpetrators hold a relationship of trust with the survivors, thus increases the severity of sentencing under Section 16(1) of the Act, whereby those who abuse such relationships of trust are subject to additional punishment in the form of whipping of not less than two strokes and imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

Teachers, as figures of authority, carry legal and ethical responsibilities to protect the relationships of trust that are entrusted to them. Abuses of power are not to be tolerated, especially when such practices create trauma in children.

Even though the teachers intended for students to follow the rule with strict policing, it must be noted that such acts of sexual assault grossly contravene the fundamental right to bodily integrity, whereby all persons deserve to be: (i) free from unwanted and unconsented physical coercion and exposure, and (ii) able to direct and control their bodies and have their ‘no’ respected. Swab-taking of the vagina, stripping and groping were done without the survivors’ explicit consent.

The fact that such practices have become so widespread has caused many schoolchildren to feel helpless and to regard that such practices are ‘normal’, ‘inevitable’ and ‘acceptable’. 

The blurring of physical boundaries at an early age and the blatant disregard of the child’s right to consent, committed by teachers within a school system that is meant to nurture and protect the child, convey to survivors and their peers that physical violations are tolerated and even accepted by the society around them. 

This messaging is troubling, given that survivors and observers carry childhood beliefs into adulthood, thus perpetuating ideas of the acceptability of physical violations, including abuse by other persons, and that the obtaining of consent may be safely disregarded.

Childhood abuse impacts minors long after they mature into adulthood, in ways that transcend the times when the offence(s) occurred in school spaces. The silencing of children’s voices, may result in a lack of self-worth that disables the ability of the child to speak up when abuse occurs, or to trust that they will be heard by others even when they enter adulthood. 

Many adult survivors of abuse, regardless of gender, still hesitate to seek legal or healthcare support when they encounter physical, sexual or mental abuse, due to conflicting messages received during their formative years. It is important to also acknowledge the fear and secondhand trauma caused to classmates who were made to observe the abuse, as well as the triggers adult survivors may now be experiencing all over the country, knowing that such systemic abuse continues to be committed towards schoolchildren.

The inability of systems to acknowledge the voices of survivors at an early age creates societal barriers for survivors and observers to speak up when they encounter future harassment and abuse in other spaces, whether at university, in the workplace, or in one’s personal life. 

Teaching children from a young age that they do not have the right to bodily autonomy or bodily integrity creates greater vulnerability to sexual abuse within future relationships: as adults, they may not realise that they have the right to provide or refuse consent, or to be protected against marital rape.

We stand with partner organisations and all survivors and persons impacted by such abuses, to call upon the Education Ministry to clarify their position on and investigate these appalling violations of children and youth in a manner that is coherent with the law and international conventions. We also appeal to the ministry to implement the following:

  • To incorporate gender sensitisation programmes within school curriculums, for both teachers and students to develop an awareness of how power operates in all relationships, what positions of privilege look like, and to discuss the negative impacts of gender inequality, and; 
  • To incorporate a much-needed Comprehensive Sexuality Education curriculum at all levels for school children, in a manner that is age-appropriate and ongoing. This is even more crucial at present, given the need to inculcate an understanding of safe touch, consent and healthy and respectful relationships between teachers and students.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights, including the basic right to bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, must be upheld by educational and governmental institutions, in order to create greater societal change and equality, regardless of age or gender. 

Children have every right to have their voices heard and respected, which includes the right to refuse unsafe touch just as adults do, and such voices must be respected without being made to justify feelings of discomfort. 

Transparent investigation and taking firm action against perpetrators to prioritise the voice of the child, is only a first step in educating society on why consent matters. We urge all government institutions to do so, in order to protect schoolchildren from future harm, and to provide healing to adult survivors of such abuses.

REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS ADVOCACY ALLIANCE MALAYSIA (RRAAM) is a women's rights and health advocacy group.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.