Encouraging Discourse on Sexual Harassment in Universities

Reports of sexual harassment cases have become increasingly pervasive in the news today, with BFM89.9 taking centre stage due to the sexual harassment allegations implicating staffs at the radio station that blew up last year. Aside from private organisations, reports have further implicated both the public sector (e.g. the case of sexual harassment involving personnel working for the Ministry of Health) as well as non-governmental organisations (e.g. WWF).
I can’t help but wonder that there is something amiss with such news stories – Where are the reports about sexual harassment cases in universities?

There have been fewer cases of sexual harassment in universities reported in the media, particularly cases committed against students. While there has been some coverage of such news in October 2018 of a varsity lecturer being suspended in light of his inappropriate comments towards students, the majority of articles today focus on sexual harassment at the workplace.

This is not to say that sexual harassment does not happen on university campuses. A 2011 study on sexual harassment conducted by Universiti Sains Malaysia concluded that its prevalence within the university was high, with 75% of undergraduates there having been subjected to a form of sexual harassment. Another study in 2013 revealed that 14.2% of undergraduates at a public university in the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their time there. However, updated statistics and studies surrounding its occurrence in recent years are few and far between.

A more likely truth is that these cases do exist, but are buried by universities for fear of it resulting in a public relations disaster and ultimately, negatively affecting its reputation. This was highlighted in a 2017 case involving a Japanese exchange student at the University of Malaya who claimed that he had been molested by another male student. Not only did the university do nothing in light of his report, but he also asserted that the university had forced him to withdraw his police report in an effort to preserve its reputation.

Further, a substantial number of these institutions still do not have sexual harassment policies in place which clearly outline how such cases are to be handled. Even where such policies are introduced by the university, they are rarely publicised with students unaware of their existence. How are students supposed to report cases of sexual harassment when they don’t even know that such a policy exists? Worse, these policies are not even properly implemented, which was asserted by academic staff at UM with respect to the university’s handling of the Japanese exchange student’s report in 2017.

It is thus unsurprising that students choose not to report directly to their university but instead choose to use social media platforms to get their story across, with some choosing not to file a formal report at all. The issue of under-reporting is in itself a major problem. Indeed, there are simply not enough support mechanisms available to victims today that would empower them to come forward with their stories. The support system in universities in particular is lacking, causing students to seek comfort from netizens through social media posts.

This leaves a gap in the present system surrounding sexual harassment. While there has been some movement to improve reporting in the workplace, little has been done to fix the problems within universities. The Deputy Minister for Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, Hannah Yeoh, also acknowledges these gaps and notes that students in universities have little recourse in the present structure. She contends that a well-implemented sexual harassment act would be appropriate not just for universities, but for public places, too.

Local universities must invest in the resources needed to handle cases of sexual harassment on-campus. They can learn from universities in Australia, where massive campaigns to highlight sexual harassment on campus was conducted in light of the Red Zone report that uncovered a widespread culture of sexual harassment in university residential colleges. These campaigns include the production of comprehensive sexual harassment policies and guidelines, large-scale ongoing marketing campaigns across the university, regular emails updating students of the measures put in place to report cases as well as yearly talks and seminars held on-campus regarding the issue.

A few local universities such as UM have started to play a more active role in drawing attention to sexual harassment and have started to put up posters and distribute hard copies of the university’s sexual harassment policy and practices around campus. Such efforts must be lauded, further, universities must actively publicise their policies to students and channel sufficient manpower to committees in charge of handling such cases to ensure a speedy and efficient resolution. These committees must also regularly involve the victim throughout the investigative process by providing updates and notifying them of the outcome of their investigation. This is to ensure that victims see that justice is being served effectively, further encouraging other victims to report cases of their own.
We need to make our universities a safe space for students, and this can start by having a greater discourse about sexual harassment.

*Sierra Nevada Marie Stephens (Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws, University of Sydney) was an intern with ASLI Centre for Public Policy Studies (CPPS), December 2018 to February 2019.

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Published Date
  • February 21, 2019
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