The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) has lauded the announcement by Women, Family, and Community Development Minister Rina Harun, that the Sexual Harassment Bill will be tabled in Parliament this year.
"While there is an urgent need for sexual harassment legislation and JAG commends the government’s commitment to tabling it, in the interest of transparency, we hope that the ministry will share the stated ‘improvements’ that have been made to the bill," said JAG in a statement.
The group also called for Rina's (above) ministry to engage in dialogue with sexual harassment survivors and civil society organisations who work with survivors over potential areas of concern.
JAG is a coalition of 14 women’s rights organisations across the country which includes the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Association of Women Lawyers, Sisters in Islam (SIS), Tenaganita, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), and more.
"The need for the Sexual Harassment Bill is clearer than ever during, and in the aftermath, of the pandemic," said the group.
"The Covid-19 pandemic and the necessary Movement Control Order (MCO) that was put in place to curb the spread of the virus have exposed and amplified many existing gender inequalities," it added.
JAG said because of the MCO, there was a sharp rise in physical and online gender-based violence observed by NGO service providers like AWAM, WAO, and the KRYSS Network.
"While enquiries to WAO’s hotline multiplied by 3.5 times after the start of the MCO, AWAM also saw an increase of enquiries from young women seeking mental health support and information on legal and sexual rights.
"23 percent of calls received on AWAM’s helpline were of sexual harassment cases, of which more than 38 percent were online sexual harassment.
"The KRYSS Network continues to receive complaints of online gender-based violence faced by victims resulting from acts of doxxing and non-consensual distribution of intimate images," added JAG.
It said that even prior to the MCO, preliminary findings from a survey by Engender Consultancy and Sisterhood Alliance of 544 respondents in Malaysia showed that 60.25 percent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces.
"With the pandemic, everyday activities and access to critical services have become dependent on the use of technology, including in the realm of professional, educational, and social activities. A recent UN women publication cited research suggesting that as a result of online gender-based violence, women tend to restrict their online activities.
JAG also cited Juana Jaafar’s research on online gender-based violence in Malaysia, “Voice, Visibility and a Variety of Viciousness”, which said that at least 50 percent of women will stop using social media or delete their accounts completely because of the violence and harassment they faced.
This meant that online sexual harassment - in addition to the emotional and psychological impact on women - also hindered many other aspects of their lives.
Sexual Harassment Bill wishlist
JAG called for the Sexual Harassment Bill to be inclusive, comprehensive, and expansive.
"First and foremost, the bill must be inclusive regarding who is covered under the scope of the law. Any individual who experiences sexual harassment regardless of the context - whether professional, educational, religious, public, or private - must have the ability to seek protection and recourse.
"Furthermore, the bill must equally protect every person in Malaysia, regardless of location or legal status.
"Second, the bill must be comprehensive in the way it defines sexual harassment. The definition of sexual harassment should include any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that has the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of the person harassed or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment," said the group.
JAG also called for the Bill to include all types of conduct, across all types of mediums, from physical conduct to implied or overt verbal, non-verbal, visual, or gestural conduct, whether taking place in person or in the virtual world using any variety of platforms, from text, to Whatsapp, social media, and video-conferencing.
"Finally, the bill must be expansive in the obligations it imposes and in the protections and redress mechanisms it affords to survivors.
"For example, this includes imposing a proactive duty on all organisations to implement a sexual harassment policy and ensure its employees, volunteers, members, etc. are thoroughly briefed on such a policy, so that the law is not only reactive to incidents of harassment that have already transpired but also proactive in preventing sexual harassment," JAG added.
It also called for the establishment of a Sexual Harassment Tribunal to allow survivors to bring complaints of sexual harassment in a way that is less expensive, faster, and less burdensome.
The group said it was optimistic at the commitment shown last year by the previous Pakatan Harapan government not only in tabling the bill but by engaging meaningfully with civil society throughout the process.
Similarly, it expressed the hope that the PN government, and the Women's Ministry, in particular, would continue to engage with the women’s rights groups to ensure that the Sexual Harassment Bill that gets tabled in Parliament is tailored and responsive to the everyday realities of women in Malaysia.