Written by Deborah, an intern at WCC and Corporate Communication student.
We should stand up confidently and firmly to say ‘NO’ to sexual harassment at the workplace. As victims or witness to such behaviour, we should not hide our emotions or be scared to voice our complaints. We must be brave to stand up, face the perpetrator and stop them doing such actions.
What is sexual harassment? It is an action of bullying or coercion, such as forcing someone to listen to sexual jokes, verbal and visuals – of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is any unwelcome behavior, that is physical and psychological, sometimes perpetrated on the victim so the agressor can receive sexual favors. These actions are often done without the victims’ permission. The perpetrator is trying to gain their attention by using unwanted sexual statements and making sexual advances. A project officer from Women’s Centre For Change (WCC) in Penang, Mangleswary Subramaniam, pointed out an example, ‘A guy keeps touching your hand while talking to you and you started to feel uncomfortable with his behavior. He ignored your feelings, even though you tried to refuse him’. This is sexual harassment.
Who are the usual perpetrators in the workplace? They could be anybody; one of your colleagues, people who are working under you – your subordinates, those people who are superior to you, or even your bosses could be harassers. Sexual harassment can be divided into three forms which are verbal, visual and physical. An example of verbal harassment is making sex jokes or simply teasing people with sexual comments such as ‘Hey sexy, that dress is showing off your nice body’. Visual harassment or unwanted actions include displaying sexually explicit pictures on your table, or leaving your computer screen open to show a picture of a naked woman. Such actions can cause extreme discomfort for women who are working around you.
Mangles stated that visual harassment causes psychological damage, even though actions are not done directly onto the person. For example, if the victim turn on her computer and suddenly a picture of a naked woman pops up, she would feel embarassed with her colleagues sitting around her. Therefore, psychological harassment does influence the victims a lot. Other examples are sending text messages, forwarding explicit pictures, or making conversations of a sexual nature. For example, the perpetrator might ask a married woman, ‘Could you talk about sex with your husband, how does he treat you in bed?’ In this instance, the perpetrator has definitely crossed a person’s boundaries and should be reprimanded immediately.
Prior to the introduction of The Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment at the workplace ( which I would hereby refer to as the Code), there was only one law in existence that came close to dealing with the issue of sexual harassment in Malaysia – Section 509 of the Penal Code (SKRINE, 2011).
Section 509 of the Penal Code provides (SKRINE, 2011):
‘Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any person, utters any words, makes any sound or gesture or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or such gesture or object shall be seen by such person, or intrudes upon the privacy of such person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years or with fine, or with both’.
In May 2000, women’s rights organizations nationwide have called upon the Government to enact a law on sexual harassment. It is to ensure that all companies implement the Code as opposed to the current situation where the Code is implemented only on a voluntary basis (SKRINE, 2011).
Mangles has previously handled cases of sexual harassment as a social worker. She shared some cases such as the instance in which the victim was harassed by her supervisor in her department. Her supervisor did not physically touched her, but he made sexual remarks to her. In another situation, he answered his phone around her (when it was not even ringing) and pretended that he received a call and started saying sexually inappropriate phrases such as ‘you have not tried it out, you will never know’. The victim felt uncomfortable with these comments. She became depressed, experienced insomnia and finally, she resigned from the company.
This is why we must say no to sexual harassment. If victims do not voice out, they will be mentally and psychologically affected, as Mangles has explained. They may go through depression, insomnia, eating and sleeping problems, negative emotions and stress. Their health will be affected. They might feel demotivated to come to work solely because they are scared to face their perpetrators. The victims often do not know what are the next steps that can be taken to stop the harassment or arrest the perpetrators. Therefore, they chose to withdraw from reality and people around them.
The second reason for stopping sexual harassment at the workplace is that the reputation of the company will be damaged. Employees will not want to work at the company and the public will lose confidence in companies with bad reputation.
Besides that, as Mangles said, people will look down on the perpetrator and will not want to work with him. No one will want to speak to him or be his friend because they don’t want to be the next victim. If the sexual harassment cases are not resolved, talented potential employees especially women will not want to work in the same company. These talented people then will work in another place that provide safer environment. This mean the company will suffer loses.
In conclusion, every company should recognise section 509 of the Penal Code in the workplace, to protect people’s rights and safety and the company’s good reputation. Besides that, companies should provide training to employees to educate them on issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. ‘Women are not sexual objects, we are human’ and ‘we should have zero tolerance to Sexual Harassment’, stressed Mangles. She also shared that if you have been harassed and the perpetrator does not want to stop, you could send an e-mail to your supervisor, Human Resource and your CEO. If none of them take any action against the perpetrator, you can go to the labor office or industry department to file a complaint. For additional information, you are welcome to visit WCC or call 04-228 0342.