16 October 2019
Revelations by a young athlete recently have helped bring the spotlight on the issue of sexual abuse and harassment in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook
Revelations by a young athlete recently have helped bring the spotlight on the issue of sexual abuse and harassment in Hong Kong. Photo: Facebook

A wake-up call on sexual harassment

With a young local athlete breaking her silence and revealing that she was sexually assaulted by her former coach 10 years ago, there is renewed concern among the Hong Kong public about the issue of sexual abuse against women and children in our society.

There is definitely no doubt that sexual assault is an outrageous felony and that there should always be zero-tolerance to it. However, apart from sexual assault, sexual harassment is also a common crime which deserves equal attention from society, but which, unfortunately, has often gone under the public radar. It is a situation that we must redress promptly.

Despite the fact that women have seen significant progress in their social status over the past few decades, patriarchal values still very much prevail in Chinese societies, including Hong Kong, to this day. As a result, victims of sexual harassment remain predominantly females, especially in the workplace.

According to a recent survey conducted by a labor organization on sexual harassment in workplace, 60 percent of the female respondents claimed that they had been sexually harassed at work.

Yet some of them chose to remain silent and avoided talking about it, for fear that they might become a subject of mockery among their co-workers if they spoke out.

I find this situation very unsatisfactory, and we must take the issue very seriously. In order to eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace, we must educate people on how to report these incidents to the authorities, and raise public awareness about the importance of reporting sexual harassment cases.

Under the existing Sex Discrimination Ordinance, sexual harassment is illegal. Sexual harassment refers to any unwelcome sexually-related behavior, either verbal or physical, that would cause the victim to feel offended, humiliated, or intimidated. That include, among other things, unwelcome sexual advances and unwelcome request for sexual favors.

Under the current law, victims of sexual harassment can report their cases to the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which is an independent statutory body responsible for overseeing the enforcement of the Sex Discrimination Ordinance.

In the meantime, victims can also file civil lawsuits against the individuals who have sexually harassed them.

However, in any sexual harassment trial, the burden of proof often rests with the victims themselves, which means they have to provide substantial evidence in court which can prove that the defendants did actually indulge in “unwelcome” sexually-related behavior against them.

Given that, whenever a person is being sexually harassed by another individual, it is very important for the victim to warn him or her immediately and explicitly tell the person not to continue with the act of harassment, or else it would be very difficult to prove that their act is “unwelcome” during court trials.

According to the EAC guidelines, apart from telling the people who are sexually harassing them to stop immediately, victims should also record details of the harassment, and then report the case to either their employer, the EAC or the police.

The administration should take the lead in fighting sexual harassment in the workplace by strictly enforcing measures against such illegal acts in all government departments and public organizations, and establishing a channel for making such complaints.

Moreover, the government should also work aggressively to raise public awareness about how people can protect themselves against sexual harassment, and encourage victims to report their cases to the authorities.

At the same time, the government should also urge employers and organizations such as schools to formulate policies against sexual harassment and establish mechanisms to handle sexual harassment complaints.

Sexual harassment doesn’t only happen in Chinese societies, it is a problem almost everywhere in the world. Nor are victims of sexual harassment exclusively females and children, as even adult males can also fall victim to such illegal acts.

That said, we must take our own problem very seriously by encouraging victims to speak out and urging authorities to follow up on their cases, so that we can prevent these incidents from happening and build a fair and healthy society.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 6

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Legislative councilor and head of nursing and health studies in the Open University of Hong Kong