Classroom harassment

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Half of our city’s students say they have been sexually harassed but many schools have no policy to deal with molestation issues. Samuel Lai investigates why and what needs to be done

It was a hazy afternoon when Amy stayed behind at school with three male classmates to work on a project. The work went well but when she was packing her books away in a drawer, one of the lads suddenly grabbed her hand and made her touch him in a hugely inappropriate way. Then, the young teenager claims, the other two boys proceeded to touch her face and breasts. She was in tears as she pleaded them to stop. But all they could do was say they were merely playing with her before telling her never to speak of the assault again. This may seem like an isolated incident but in Hong Kong this indecent scenario is all too common in our classrooms.

Amy’s case, which was eventually was settled through conciliation between the different parties, is horrible but it’s just the tip of a huge iceberg. There’ve been worse reports of molestation incidents at school. According to two surveys announced by the Equal Opportunities Commission in the past few months, a staggering 50 percent of students in Hong Kong have experienced some form of sexual harassment at some stage. But – and perhaps this is even more staggering – half of the schools in the city don’t even have an anti-sexual harassment policy. “Sexual harassment is a critical problem across all educational levels,” says Dr Chu Chung-man, the commission’s head of policy and research. “But many schools have adopted an ‘ostrich policy’ in response to these incidents. Instead of addressing the issue upfront, they choose to avoid the problem. That’s rather disappointing.”

A total of 5,902 students, ranging from Primary Four to university level, participated in the surveys – and half of them said they’ve been sexually harassed. The most common acts experienced were being the focus of sexual jokes, comments or propositions, being on the wrong end of indecent gestures and being shown pornography. But 16 percent of the respondents reported being ‘touched or rubbed in an unwelcome sexual way’. 

One of the problems, however, is that so many of those who were being sexually harassed decided against seeking external assistance. A total of 58 percent of the victims chose to ‘keep silent’. “Sometimes they are simply too scared or embarrassed,” says Dr Chu. “Other times it’s a lack of awareness. Victims feel helpless and they don’t know who to go to.” Another major reason, Dr Chu points out, is that, on most occasions, the perpetrators are classmates of the victims. As such, he says, the victim may feel offended by the lewd act but he or she doesn’t ask for help as they’re worried that lodging a complaint will affect their friendship with their peers. The survey also quoted a male student who admitted to not reporting his case of harassment: “If I went to my teacher and complained, my friend would’ve found out and then we’d be friends no more. He’d be angry at me and wouldn’t talk to me any more.”

“Alarmingly, many students accept sexual harassment as part of ‘growing up’ or ‘the campus culture’,” says Dr Chu. For instance, according to the doctor, an infamous game known as the ‘happy corner’ is rather common among male students in the playground. Basically, people carry a target person by the limbs and swing him around a pole, so his private parts are rubbed in the process. And this doesn’t just happen at secondary schools. A male university student expressed his views on such a ‘game’ in one of the surveys: “Before a target is ‘cornered’, we will never ask for his consent. In other words, one is forced to play the game. From my point of view, this is more than just sexual harassment – it’s sexual bullying.”

While molestation incidents mostly occur among peers, according to the surveys, teachers are occasionally the offenders. “Sometimes, when a male teacher wants to help us remember the information more easily,” one girl is quoted as saying in the survey, “he will tell us jokes. But some of them are explicitly sexual.”


 

When students encounter sexual harassment, the majority of them claim they feel ‘angry, afraid or scared’, according to the surveys. Many students become affected in their daily lives and there are adverse effects to interpersonal relationships, with about 36 percent of the respondents saying they ‘can’t relate well with others’ after being harassed, while 17 percent ‘can’t study well’. “Sexual harassment in schools can weaken a student’s sense of dignity and disrupt his or her education,” says Dr Chu, who adds that, in more serious cases, it may lead to temporary or prolonged bouts of depression. Pui-lam Hui, co-ordinating officer of the Association for the Advancement of Feminism, which has handled many school-based sexual harassment cases over the years, agrees. She says: “The victims might feel they are filthy and unworthy. Others might show low self-confidence and insecurities, and develop a poor sense of belonging to their school.”

The fact that about half of the schools in Hong Kong do not have a policy statement on sexual harassment is causing concern for experts. “Many schools are in fear of damages to their reputation,” says solicitor Yiu-kwong Chong, who is deputy director of the rights and complaints department of the HK Professional Teachers’ Union. “The schools lack the will and determination to tackle this issue. They merely hope that sexual harassment incidents don’t occur in their own schools.” Dr Chu echoes this view: “Teachers and staff consider that schools address the issue in a low-key manner in order to uphold their reputation. The general attitude is ‘don’t make a mountain out of a molehill’.”

Other schools, claim the surveys, say they don’t consider it necessary to establish an anti-sex harassment policy because ‘sexual harassment has not occurred in the school’. Hui, however, thinks this is ‘not a legitimate excuse’. “It’s like a fire drill,” she says. “A fire accident might never happen – but when it does, people know the correct measures to adopt.” Dr Chu agrees: “Schools should not wait until sexual harassment becomes serious before formally tackling it.”

Advocates call for schools to establish policies to build a ‘zero sexual harassment’ environment. “If schools have rules that forbid students from saying foul language, then why shouldn’t there be rules that prohibit sex-related verbal conduct?” questions Hui. “Schools have regulations for a student’s hairstyle – surely sexual harassment is a more critical issue than whether a student uses hair gel?” 

“Under an effective mechanism, victims can seek help in confidence and follow formal complaint procedures to solve the sexual harassment problems,” says Dr Chu. “Sexual harassers can receive appropriate counselling and, if necessary, punishment.”

The Education Bureau has liaised with the Equal Opportunities Commission to provide further support to schools. “We urged all schools to take reasonable measures to ensure that all individuals in the school are able to study or work in a sexually hostile-free environment,” says a spokesman from the bureau. “We plan to organise training programmes and sharing sessions for principals and teachers so that they develop measures appropriate to their school-based circumstances for complying with the legal requirements.”

 Aberdeen Baptist Lui Ming Choi College has established an anti-school harassment policy for nearly 10 years. “We have invited theatre groups and hosted workshops to teach our students how to protect themselves and increase their awareness of sexual harassment through interactive activities,” says Lai-wan Wong, deputy principal. “The most important thing is that our students feel safe and secure on campus. They know they can count on us when they need help.”

To see the Study on Students’ Sexual Attitudes and Views on Sexual Harassment, as well as the Sexual Harassment Questionnaire Survey for the Education Sector, check out eoc.org.hk.


Help is at hand...

Need to talk to someone about sexual harassment? Here are some organisations to contact... 

The Association for the Advancement of Feminism

Since 1984, The AAF has been helping young women who have suffered from discrimination – especially those who have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The organisation has a free legal advice hotline and provides services to those filing cases to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Throughout the whole procedure, AAF also helps victims prepare for investigations conducted by the commission. And, to better raise public awareness, the association conducts talks and presentations in schools on a regular basis. The lectures introduce ways to identify sexual harassment incidents and offer safety precautions.
2720 0891; aaf.org.hk

The Association Concerning Sexual Violence Against Women

Established in 1997, this NGO was founded by those who are concerned about women’s rights and gender equality. With its key mission to protect women from sexual violence, the association has launched two centres over the years to offer support to victims. Anti 480, the anti-violence resource centre, aims at giving teenagers a basic knowledge of how to tackle sexual violence through workshops and interactive play. More than 50,000 teenagers had participated in the programme by the end of last year. In November 2000, the association set up RainLily, Hong Kong’s first one-stop crisis centre for female victims of sexual violence. It provides a 24-hour hotline and professional counselling services. 2375 5322; rainlily.org.hk

Cease Crisis Centre

Operated by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, the Cease Crisis Centre aims at providing comprehensive services to victims of sexual violence. The 24-hour hotline on 18281 and immediate counselling services are available for victims of sexual violence to obtain appropriate medical, legal and counselling services regardless of gender, age and race. For those under 18, the centre refers them to the Social Welfare Department for follow-up action. 2703 4111; ceasecrisis.tungwahcsd.org

End Child Sexual Abuse Foundation

Founded in 1998 by Ms Siao Fong-Fong, an award-winning actress and child psychologist, the ESCAF aims at protecting youngsters from sexual abuse. By providing various programmes for parents, teachers and children, the foundation hopes to raise the public awareness on the issue. The sex education programme is designed exclusively for students. It’s been introduced to many schools in the city since June 2008. Utilising multimedia equipment and fun games, children gain an interesting learning experience for self-protection and a basic understanding of sex. 2889 9925; ecsaf.org.hk.

Karen Shunqi Lin

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