In my first year of university in Melbourne three guys in my hostel were harassing me.
They left lewd notes about me, how fat/ugly/stupid I was in the lift. I was tough and for most part, ignored it as silly young guys who smoked too much (and no, I don’t mean cigarettes). Slowly, it got worse: they left a series of messages on my answering machine mentioning sexual acts. I still remember his exact words “I need a f**k and I want a s**k so don’t d**k.”
That’s when it crossed the line.
I brought the answering machine to the police to find out what I could do. For an 18-year-old living out of home for the first time, I must admit I was pretty plucky. Many women in my shoes remain silent and never take any action against their harassers. The police told me this was classified as stalking. While I didn’t want to press charges, the two officers very helpfully offered to visit the boys in my hostel and “scare them a bit”. They hauled two of the three guys in and gave them a good talking to, in front of me and the hostel owners. They officers told them in no uncertain terms that a voice recognition test of the phone messages would convict them.
It put the fear of God into them. I never heard from them again.
I am grateful to those police officers. They went above and beyond the call of duty to help me.
I was distressed to know that had that incident happened in Singapore I would have no recourse – at that time stalking was not an offence under Singapore law.
The new Protection from Harassment Bill enacted by the Ministry of Law means that I, and countless others will be protected. (Women account for 80% of workplace sexual harassment, but yes, there are male victims too)
My experience was relatively light-weight on the spectrum of harassment. Other women often experience threats of violence, being followed, intimidated and mental and emotional distress.
What harassers count on is psyching out victims. To the vicimt, the fear of something hapening is even more crippling than it actually happening, they alter their lifestyle and behaviour, to avoid the threats of the harasser. There are more ways to torture and hurt someone than with physical pain. And this harassment isn’t rare either. A 2008 study of 500 women in Singapore showed 54% has experienced some form of workplace harassment.
Now anyone who is subject to stalking, cyber harassment, bullying, sexual harassment within and outside the workplace will have recourse. Namely self-help measures such as protection orders (the SG equivalent of a restraining order) and criminal sancions. The Ministry of Law’s announcement says this will “better protect people from harassment and related anti-social behaviour.”
Women in the workplace who have been harassed by a colleague or superior now have recourse from being bullied, manipulated and intimated at the office. Many victims feel helpless and their complaints aren’t taken seriously.
People who haven’t been in their shoes often tell victims of workplace sexual harassment they are “overreacting”. But victims experience severe distress, often resulting in leaving thier jobs, depression and even suicide attempts. One of the women who shared her story on Aware’s Sexual Harassment website (http://shout.org.sg/stories/) described her experience as being “in a constant state of fear at work” and another said her union rep told her to take the constant unwanted advances of a colleague “as a compliment”. Many found little recourse from their company HR departments, and one woman was even told she wouldn’t be allowed to resign unless she signed a document saying her allegations against the boss were false.
The new bill is definitely a win. Going forward we should involve employers, unions and HR departments in stamping out workplace harassment for good.