Sunday, July 11, 2010

Say 'no' to sexual harassment

"I have always found you sexy," says a male executive to his female colleague, who is also an executive in the same company.

Tasha, the 40-year-old female executive, tells me that this is not the first time that Johan has uttered those words to her. "Sensual," "alluring" and "hot" were other favourites.

Tasha's response to Johan's appreciation of her beauty is always a simple "Thank you". She feels good that this man finds her attractive but she does not take that as an invitation to begin "something" with her colleague, who is a very charming 50-year-old.

Tasha is happily married and she does not want to do anything that will jeopardise the loving relationship she enjoys with her husband. Johan is married too but the status of his relationship with his wife is unclear.

How should Tasha view Johan's attention? Is it a compliment or an insult?

I am bringing this issue up in response to the recent announcement that it will now be compulsory for employers in Malaysia to act on complaints of sexual harassment. If they failed to do so, they would be liable to a fine of up to RM10,000.

This is provided for in the Employment (Amendment) Bill 1955, which was recently tabled for its first reading by Deputy Human Resources Minister Datuk Maznah Mazlan.

This is a "landmark move". Critics argue that the current code of guidelines for workplaces to deal with such offences has its limitations. It is voluntary and employers are under no compulsion to adopt a sexual harassment policy at the workplace. Victims get no protection at all.

I met Tasha for coffee just after the new development was reported in the local media and our conversation inevitably veered to the subject.

She talked about Johan's seemingly natural inclination to heap praises on her appearance and is beginning to wonder if that is an indication of sexual harassment. He hasn't made any indecent proposal so far.

So what should she do?

According to Sexual Harassment Support, "ignoring the behaviour actually encourages it to continue". If Tasha feels uncomfortable with Johan's comments, she should tell him that his "attention is unwanted" because that is the "only way he will know that it is unwanted".

The idea is to get the message across to Johan that his comments are unwelcome. Tasha has to say "no" to Johan like she means it. She should not say "I am happily married" because that is not the same as saying "no".

It suggests that she would not mind the attention or would welcome it if she were not in a relationship.

Also, the "prospects of cheating" with Tasha may encourage Johan to continue with his behaviour.

Of course, Tasha may want to live dangerously. If that is the case, she should not read this post.

Admittedly, it is not easy to be "firm and direct" to harassers especially if they are people in authority including relatives.

Click what you can do if you are being sexually harassed for more tips.

The Education Ministry in Bangladesh recently designated June 13 as "Eve Teasing Protection Day". The term "Eve teasing" is a euphemism for sexual harassment.

The move reflected "increasing concern over the worrying number of girls and women who have recently committed suicide in the country" to avoid "ribald comments, smutty jokes, coarse laughter, sly whistles and even indecent exposure," according to a BBC news report.

It is so tragic that some victims of sexual harassment in Bangladesh "find suicide is the only avenue that enables them to escape this social pandemic".

The system has failed them. "Critics argue that laws which should prohibit sexual harassment are so poorly drafted that victims get virtually no help from the law enforcement agencies. Families of the victims are left feeling hopeless and helpless."

Only 104 women in Malaysia complained about sexual harassment at the workplace in 2008. Some 776 women reported grievances of this nature between 2000 and 2007.

As the numbers indicate, Malaysian women are reluctant to tell on their perpetrators for fear of retaliation and embarrassment.

The shroud of shame that comes with the intervention process deters many from taking action.

That is perfectly understandable but victims have to confront the problem at some point. Most women and men (male-to-male sexual harassment is another topic for discussion) have been targets of sexual harassment.

It is time to say "NO".

1 comment:

justmytwocents said...

Kudos to you for being the voice of what many women out there are experiencing but dare not make public. The harasser could possibly be a father in sheep clothing, in which, if reported, no one would believe especially if he is a respected figure in her family or worse, society. If the bastard happens to be her employer, matters are even more complicated. Never mind her potential forthcoming promotion but more importantly, her job stability is at stake. These men usually have eagle eyes for quiet, passive and submissive victims who would highly unlikely come forward to reveal the harsh truth. It is all the fears of being denied promotion or even fired and being labeled a liar which actually give the green light for this sick offense to continue. Being quiet and keeping it to yourself, unfortunately for this case, serve as a catalyst for such harassment to go on. More and more victims need to be brave and prudent to report these harassers to the authorities. It is easier said than done, I know, because of the heavy stigma of 'what ifs' that is haunting these scarred women.