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How Safe Are Schools? Sexual Harassment Within Education Spheres

Trigger warning (TW): Sexual harassment

In January 2023, a former school principal, Rosli Abd Rahman, 58, was slapped with 13 charges of sexually communicating, assaulting and raping a then 16-year-old student[1]

The incident occurred in Kuala Lumpur and Marang (Terengganu), between November 2020 and November 2021[1].

In 2022, an 11-year-old girl was sexually harassed by her school van driver[2]

On the first day, he asked her name, then he told her she was cute, beautiful, and pinched her cheeks.

He said ‘Don’t worry. It’s okay.’ He asked my daughter for her WhatsApp number and gave her a keychain with his number, asking her to add him later. – Father of the 11-year-old victim[2]

These are just a few of the many sexual harassment cases occurring in schools and education centres throughout the nation.

When AWAM (All Women’s Action Society) analysed abuse testimonies at schools, sexual harassment constituted 75% of 1495 violations – verbal (36.9%), physical (35.2%) and gestural (13%)[3].

As learning institutions are meant to be a safe space for students to flourish through education, such violations set them back.

Sexual harassment may poison the environment, reinforcing the idea that school isn’t a safe or just place. – Dr. Nan Stein, the director of the Sexual Harassment in Schools Project at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in Wellesley[4]

What Is Sexual Harassment?

AWAM describes sexual harassment as a series of unwelcoming conduct of a sexual nature. This conduct is perceived by the recipient to be intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive. This conduct is perceived to violate the recipient’s dignity.

The United Nations defines it as unwanted behaviour or unwelcome sexual advances. This harassment takes several forms such as unwanted pressure for sexual favours, catcalls, sexually suggestive signals, unwanted sexually-undertoned teasing, jokes, remarks, or questions, and more.

There are physical and verbal forms. Verbal harassment is more common but every bit as harmful. Verbal harassment is also more difficult to identify because of the many forms that it takes, like name-calling of a sexual nature, obscene gestures and off-colour jokes that contain sexual innuendos. – Hartini Zainudin, Voice of the Children[5]

In Malaysia, there’s been increased awareness around sexual harassment – discussions on social media, talks about sexual harassment, and awareness efforts. But there’s no denying that this is still a crippling issue in the public and private spheres.

For 2022, sexual harassment is considered a top issue, both in Malaysia and globally. – Lars Erik Lie, Ipsos Malaysia’s associate director of public affairs[6]

Within the education sector, students at different educational institutes – schools, learning centres, and universities – are highly susceptible to sexual harassment. Research revealed that 75% of undergraduates in the country experienced at least one type of sexual harassment[5].

The Perpetrators

You’d be surprised that the perpetrators are usually known to the victims.

In educational institutes, healthy relationships (between students and their peers, or their educators) are fostered by respect, kind-heartedness, and genuine whole-hearted intentions.

Source: The Vibes

But when it comes to sexual harassment, these relationships are taken for granted.

Sadly, students are preyed on by educators and those who are meant to guide them in the education spaceIn most cases, sexual harassment occurs when a power imbalance exists between a student and their teacher. These teachers may take for granted their position and proceed to exploit the student. 

In 2021, collaborative research conducted by Save the Schools MY (STS) and AWAM pointed out that 247 out of 311 sexual harassment perpetrators were teachers, religious teachers and wardens[7].

Among all school figures of authority, teachers constitute the most common perpetrators in sexual harassment and bullying, and ustazahs in period spot checks. – AWAM[3]

The same study also revealed that 41% (320) of the perpetrators were figures of authority in school, and 87.1% of these perpetrators were men[8].

But there’s also a bigger number – 472 to be exact, revealing that student peers are perpetrators[7].

Sexual harassment also can be emanated from lecturer to lecturer, student to a lecturer, and student to student.

The incidents that occur in higher education institutions are especially worrisome because it involves a power imbalance between lecturers and students, which is  exacerbated by factors such as age discrepancy,  students’ naivety, lecturers’ belief and respect, and gender disparity in the academic environment. – Asian Journal of Civilizational Studies[5]

In University Sains Malaysia alone, a study revealed that at least 50% of its students claimed that they had been harassed, with 60% of respondents reported being victims to sexual jokes, 20% to unwanted sexual attention, and 8% to unwanted sexual coercion.

Living With The Aftereffects Of Sexual Harassment

Victims (in this case, students) of sexual harassment are plagued by its psychological, physical, social and education-related effects.

Sexual harassment must not be considered petty and unimportant as it has a negative impact on the victims, especially mentally, and leaves them with trauma that could disrupt their daily routine, productivity and well-being. – Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun, former Women, Family and Community Development Minister[9]

In 2021, a then 19-year-old local university student shared accounts of sexual harassment by his male lecturer. The lecturer made sexual remarks through online conversations while asking the victim for details of other male friends. Although the victim came forward and sought help, he was eventually turned away[9].

To be honest I’m feeling so scared and insecure. I feel uncomfortable studying at that college and annoyed by the lecturer’s actions towards me. – *Jay, victim of sexual harassment[10]

Additionally, trauma is a common effect, and there’s no timeline to get over it. Trauma can overwhelm and produce physical symptoms such as aches, headaches, or even chronic physical health problems such as high blood pressure and blood sugar problems.

In 2019, then-university student Esma* became a victim of sexual harassment at her campus clinic. The medic took full advantage of his profession and told Esma* to unbutton and lower her bra[11].

I did what he asked me to do because there was nothing suspicious at first. I thought he was doing his job. – *Esma, victim of sexual harassment[11] 

With no shame or guilt, he sexually harassed Esma*. Ever since, the now 22-year-old has been battling her fears.

Source: JP

I didn’t say anything. I was too shocked. 

Every time I have to go to the police station or to the court, I start to feel again what happened. I cannot move on. – Esma*, victim of sexual harassment [11]

What Does The Law Say? 

As there was no offence for sexual harassment, the medic was charged under section 354 of the Malaysian Penal Code for “assault or use of criminal force on a person with the intent to outrage modesty” (according to the news report in 2022, Esma’s* case is pending).

Previously, there were laws relating to sexual harassment, but none addressed it directly. 

For instance, the Employment Act 1955 (states how to complain about sexual harassment at work and the mandatory duty for employers to investigate sexual harassment complaints). It also lists appropriate actions to be taken by an employer if sexual harassment is proven), and The Communications & Multimedia Act 1998 (Section 233, which protects against online sexual harassment). 

Fortunately, we are at the dawn of a hope.

In July 2022, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill received the green light from the Dewan Rakyat.

Source: The Star

Though long overdue (the bill was previously proposed in 2011), and not perfectly refined, it marks a significant milestone.

The anti-sexual tribunal has the authority to decide the cases, namely, ordering a statement of apology by the respondent to the complainant and up to RM250,000 compensation awarded to the latter for damages and losses.

We will not stop at gazetting this bill. We will improve this act based on current needs and situations.It will be more practical for improvements to be made after seeing how the law operates. – Datuk Seri Rina Mohd Harun, former Women, Family and Community Development Minister[7]

Beyond Legislation

Source: Spectrum

Although the law strives to empower and protect us, it isn’t enough to curb sexual harassment.

Sex education however, goes a long way.

Comprehensive sexuality education is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. – UNESCO[12]

And it’s not just for students or children, but for parents and every tier of society.

Sexual harassment is a close cousin of behavioural issues. That is why it must be identified correctly.

School bus drivers, students, parents and school staff in and out of school must also understand what sexual harassment is. – Hartini Zainudin, Voice of the Children[5]

But diving into sex-ed is tricky, especially in a country where most consider sexual education taboo.

Sex education remains a taboo among Malaysians, which is why it was placed under the Physical Education and Health subject. – Teo Nie Ching, former Deputy Education Minister[13]

Nevertheless, its importance is too great to ignore.

Sexuality education is essential to prevent and combat sexual abuse against children, sexual violence and sexual exploitation.

International human rights bodies have established that children and young people have the right to receive comprehensive, accurate, scientifically sound and culturally sensitive sexuality education. – Council of Europe[14]

Here’s What You Can Do

If you ever find yourself being sexually harassed or happen to be a witness, here’s some guidelines on what you can do (courtesy of AWAM):

*Name have been changed to ensure anonymity.

Explore Our Sources

  1. Malaymail. (2023). Former Terengganu school principal charged with 13 counts of physical sexual assault, rape of student. Link
  2. Sabrina, Z. (2022). Father Slaps & Confronts School Van Driver For Allegedly Sexually Harassing His Daughter. Link
  3. AWAM. (2021). No More Violence in Schools. Link
  4. Lawrence, K. (1994).  Parent & Child. Link
  5. Ashman, A. (2022). Malaysians think sexual harassment biggest issue faced by women in country; over half in Ipsos survey say comments on physical looks unacceptable. Link
  6. Resha, G. (2022). Teach children about sexual harassment from young, say activists. Link
  7. FMT. (2021). Teachers to blame for 80% of sexual harassment cases, says NGO. Link 
  8. Save the Schools MY (STS) report. (2021). Link
  9. Nuradzimmah, D, Hana N.H, & Arfa, Y. (2022). Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill gets Dewan Rakyat nod. Link
  10. Melissa, M. (2021). 19yo M’sian Sexually Harassed By Male Lecturer Who Allegedly Lusts After Young Men. Link.  
  11. Emily, D. (2022). New sexual harassment bill edges closer to law in Malaysia. Link
  12. UNESCO. (2022). Why comprehensive sexuality education is important. Link.
  13. Esther, L, Tasnim, L, & Mohamed, B. (2019). Protection against sexual ignorance – Good reason to revamp sex education syllabus. Link
  14. Strasbourg. (2020). Comprehensive sexuality education protects children and helps build a safer, inclusive society. Link.

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