KUALA LUMPUR, July 21 – The long gestating Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021 was finally approved in Parliament yesterday after a lengthy debate in the Dewan Rakyat.
“The conversation about a sexual harassment bill began when I was six-years -old, I’m now 43,” said Batu Kawan MP, Kasthuri Patto.
The tabling of the bill was postponed a number of times in the last couple of years. It was eventually tabled for its first reading in Parliament in December last year.
“A two-decade struggle is now being debated in a matter of minutes,” said Fuziah Salleh, Kuantan MP, during the bill’s second reading yesterday.
However, Petaling Jaya MP, Maria Chin Abdullah, said women’s groups in Malaysia have been campaigning for the issue since 1985.
“This bill reflects a victory for the women’s movement in Malaysia,” she said. “I hope women will never have to wait this long again to claim their rights.”
The bill, which was passed by voice vote after its third reading yesterday, allows for the establishment of a tribunal to deliberate sexual harassment complaints, and provides a mechanism for anyone who has been sexually harassed to seek redress.
The tribunal will be headed by a president and vice president who will be appointed among members of the judicial and legal service, and will include no less that five other members, including an individual who is a member of, or who had a prior role in the judicial and legal system, and an advocate/solicitor who has been in practice for no less than seven years.
Other members of the tribunal will be determined by the minister, based on their knowledge and practical experience in dealing with sexual harassment issues.
Under the new Act, anybody can make a complaint with the tribunal against sexual harassment. When a sexual harassment complaint is made, the secretary of the tribunal will issue a written notice to the the complainant and respondent with details on the date, time and location of the hearing.
All parties involved in the proceedings have a right to attend and be heard. They are not allowed legal representation for the hearing, which is closed to the public. However, amendments were made to permit legal representation in cases that are considered legally complex, provided both parties are allowed to hire a lawyer.
The tribunal will deliberate and determine the suitability of negotiating an agreed settlement in relation to the sexual harassment complaint.
Any settlement agreed upon by the parties involved will be approved and recorded by the tribunal and enforced as if it is an award by the tribunal.
The tribunal will state in writing the justifications for the award or dismissal of the sexual harassment complaint.
The award may include any or all of the following: an apology to the complainant; compensation or damages in the amount not exceeding RM250,000; and a requirement to attend any programme deemed suitable by the tribunal.
Failure to comply with the terms of the award within 30 days of it being made is considered an offence, and will be subject to a penalty.
According to the Act, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development’s secretary general as will function as administrator of anti-sexual harassment.
The responsibilities of this role include formulating policies and guidelines, promoting prevention and awareness of sexual harassment, and administration of any matters related to sexual harassment prevention and awareness.
Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Rina Harun, who tabled the bill in Parliament yesterday, said that she hoped its passage will send out the message that sexual harassment is a not an issue to be taken lightly.
“This bill is important because its aim is to destroy the culture of normalising sexual harassment,” she said.
While many of the MPs expressed support for the bill in Parliament yesterday, a number of concerns were also raised.
Pengerang MP Azalina Othman Said maintained that having the ministry’s secretary-general in the role of administrator defies logic.
“I have never come across an administrator for sexual harassment anywhere in the world,” said the chairwoman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Women and Children Affairs and Social Development.
She said such a role would pave the way for “moral policing” when it comes to sexual harassment cases, adding that there is “no ouster clause from any decision made by the administrator.”
Azalina also said legal issues could arise as a result, as the tribunal will be operating under civil law and not criminal law. She suggested that the duties of the administrator be undertaken by a committee instead.
Jerlun MP Mukhriz Mahathir noted that the Act doesn’t have a section for sexual harassment at work, adding that “protection should be given to employees because they still have to go to work and face the person who harassed them”.
Maria added that “organisational responsibility is not clear in the bill”. She asked what the tribunal will do to ensure adherence to its decisions.
“I don’t want this Act to become a white elephant, toothless when it comes to enforcing the law,” she said.
Kasthuri maintained that the law has to be universal. “It should not be based on culture or religion, but should adhere to international standards.”
She also asked if judges would have to take refresher courses to improve their understanding of sexual harassment issues.
Beaufort MP Azizah Mohd Dun said that awareness activities are also needed so that people understand the law and respect it.
She asked if a mechanism will be instituted to safeguard victims who make reports so that they are not afraid to come forward. “We should have a “Don’t Be Afraid to Make a Report” campaign,” she suggested.
In her response, Rina said that she will take into account stakeholders’ views to improve the bill.
“A monitoring committee will be developed to ensure the effectiveness of the law,” she said, adding that an action plan has also been drafted to implement the Act.
“I give my word that we will work with all parties to implement and enforce this bill.”