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  • Kai Hui Wong

Sexual harassment complaint: Victim laments slow journey for justice

This article was originally published at Malaysiakini :

The journey has been harrowing for a sexual harassment victim since she lodged a complaint in 2019 against an associate professor at Universiti Malaya.

For Soleil Ching (not her real name), the internal complaint system failed to do justice for the victims.

She said after reporting the incident to the UM integrity unit, she could not prevent another student from being further victimised.

In an interview with Malaysiakini, Ching said by sharing the experience she went through after being sexually harassed, she hopes the existing system will improve.

"When I knew that another girl became a victim after me, I was very sad and angry. Why is the complaint system so slow? I did not expect that they would need to spend such a long time to solve my case."

Ching expected the UM authority to complete its investigation within three months and punish the perpetrator, but it took them a year to deal with it.

The incident occurred in early June 2019 and she lodged an official complaint with the UM integrity unit on July 1.

Two weeks later, since there was no response, she went to the unit's office to ask about the progress of her complaint.

"They said they have received the complaint but haven't planned what to do yet. They said they would arrange an internal meeting to discuss my case."

The unit later called her to attend a preliminary inquiry to determine whether a full investigation was needed.

She said two months after the complaint, a formal investigation was conducted and parties involved were called to give statements.

According to her, the associate professor was suspended in early 2020, a few months after the investigation began.

However, he was still allowed to enter the campus and walk free around the department, which led to her and others feeling insecure.

"The incident had a great impact on my mental health and my academic performance. I really hoped that the matter can be resolved quickly so that I can move on.

“It didn't. It kept dragging on," said the 24-year-old student.

Ching said apart from her, at least three other female students in the department had been sexually harassed by the associate professor in the past 10 years.

She said the perpetrator continued lecturing at the department until she chose to lodge a complaint against him.

A speedier process of an internal investigation, she added, would have prevented another student from becoming a victim of harassment.

“If they could be a little bit faster, there may not be another victim after me."

Lack of transparency

The associate professor reportedly retired in June 2020, a year after the incident. Until then, Ching didn't know the punishment he had received.

She said there was a lack of transparency in the whole complaint system on sexual harassment.

"The university was not considerate. A complainant can only know the person was guilty but not the punishment. It gives the perception that the university is defending the perpetrator."

After lodging her police report in July 2020, Ching recounted that the process of doing so was another form of victimisation.

"When I was at the Pantai police station, the police officers did not allow my friends to accompany me when I gave my statement.

"They did not think about the victim’s feelings. The victim may be scared, but she had to give the statement alone.

"When the police officer checked the statement I prepared from my USB drive, he asked me why I made the report so late.

"I explained that I thought the UM authority would handle the issue. Since they did not handle it well, I decided to lodge a police report. He said it was not acceptable. I felt like he was blaming me."

The police officer told her that cases that are criminal in nature should be reported immediately and that the complaint made to the university authority was not the "official means".

The Pantai police then asked her to lodge her report at the Dang Wangi police headquarters, where she had to repeat the ordeal she went through with the associate professor.

"At Dang Wangi, the two police officers were chatting and laughing while recording my statement. When I said the perpetrator hugged me, they asked questions like ‘Why you did not resist?' This was how they questioned."

Ching said she was well prepared before she decided to lodge the report.

"That's why I was able to answer their questions calmly. (To that question) I said I was so scared at the time. I was shocked and did not know how to react. So I didn't resist immediately."

Ching said she doesn't want to condemn the police force or its officers but would like to point out the shortcomings that can be improved.

"It is painful for a victim when questioned about the experience. The behaviour of police officers will cause further trauma to the victim. If I can be treated this way, I really can't imagine how other victims go through the process. It was really distressing.

"Police officers really need to have some training to understand how to help the victims better."

Otherwise, it may psychologically harm the victims who will be more hesitant to make further reports, she added.

After Ching's case made the headlines last year, UM Student Union, UM Association of New Youth (Umany), Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), DAP Youth and the MCA Civil Society Movement Coordination Bureau came out in support of her.

JAG also cited a poll stating 59 percent of respondents did not report harassment due to the fear of repercussion.

Unfortunately, Ching said she did not get the university's support after having the courage to lodge a complaint against her lecturer.

UM to improve existing policy

According to the current standard operating procedure (SOP), the UM integrity unit has to reply within 14 days after receiving a complaint and determine whether the case requires further investigation.

If the integrity unit decides it merits further investigation, a panel will be formed and given 60 days to complete its probe.

The final investigation report will then be submitted to the disciplinary committee for further action.

The existing policy only stipulates that the bureau must inform the complainant about the results of the investigation, but it does not state that "the content of disciplinary action" must be revealed.

Gender Studies Programme senior lecturer Lai Suat Yan told Malaysiakini that UM has embarked on reviewing and improving existing policy starting February this year.

She explained that the existing policy provides 60 days for the investigation, with no specific time limit set for the disciplinary committee to deliberate and determine the punishment.

UM senior lecturer Lai Suat Yan

“Due to this, even if a case is investigated within the time period provided, it may still take longer for the deliberation and punishment even though it has been established that the complaint has merit.

"UM is looking into the shortcomings. For example, to have a clearer timeline from start to finish, by highlighting the period for investigation and for the disciplinary committee to do the necessary," Lai, who is Universiti Malaya Academic Staff Association (PKAUM) vice-president, said.

She was also a member of a committee that was formed to provide feedback in the drafting of the Sexual Harassment Bill under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.

Lai agreed that sexual harassment complainants have the right to know the punishment meted out against perpetrators.

According to her, the university organised a one-day workshop two months ago, where several parties including UM's legal unit, the Psychology and Counselling Section, Administrators and Professional Association (Pekerti), PKAUM, student union and the police were present to discuss the issue.

"At the last workshop, we concluded that a complainant has the right to know. The complainant should be informed of the decision and the action taken," Lai said.

Malaysiakini contacted UM requesting the data on sexual harassment reports and the progress of the above-mentioned reforms, but the university has yet to respond at the time of writing.

Wider reforms

Both Ching and Lai agreed that UM has a relatively good system to handle sexual harassment, but the situation may not be the same at other public and private institutions.

"I am worried about other universities. How are they handling it?" Ching asked when interviewed separately.

Apart from UM, Lai said specific policy or procedure to deal with sexual harassment also exist at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).

"I'm referring to a specific policy against sexual harassment. Of course, as public universities are part of the civil service, there is a circular on handling sexual harassment at the workplace issued by the Public Service Department, and the issue is also covered under the Employment Act," she said.

UM launched the "Code of Practice on the Prevention and Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases in University of Malaya" in July 2008, USM did the same in July 2009 and Unimas initiated theirs in 2019.

Besides establishing a specific policy with clear procedures, Lai stressed that it is important to systematically ensure that the information reaches all students and staff.

The staff handling such cases must also be trained to handle them in a gender-sensitive manner.

Ching expressed her hope that Parliament will one day enact the Sexual Harassment Act.

"The country needs a law on sexual harassment. Perpetrators must know what they are doing is a crime, just like murder and robbery where a person can be charged, convicted and sentenced."

At present, Malaysia does not have specific legislation on sexual harassment.

Sections 354, 355, 375 and 509 of the Penal Code and Part XVA of the Employment Act have related provisions governing this matter.

Specific sexual harassment law is needed to provide a fast, safe and smooth complaint process.

For the sake of all sexual harassment victims, Ching hopes that such a law will come into effect soon.


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