Combating sexual harassment in universities

5 Nov 2018

By Michelle Racho


A spotlight has been shone on sexual harassment cases in Singapore, with the recent #MeToo movement gaining traction on social media sites and in local media. It is imperative that institutions step up and rethink their processes to address this issue.

Currently, efforts towards tackling sexual harassment here are centered on the workplace. In 2015, Singapore launched the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment, which aimed to be a practical guide for employers and employees to improve the prevention and management of workplace harassment.

So far, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has mainly published reports on sexual harassment at the workplace or among young people in general. This means that information on campus-based sexual harassment is sorely lacking.

Singaporean universities do not yet have comprehensive anti-harassment policies in place, although most of them have honour codes that remind students to be respectful of one another.

While some schools explicitly forbid sexual harassment, it is only covered briefly in their student codes of conduct and do not go into in-depth detail.

Universities can do more to acknowledge the severity of sexual harassment cases, take more measures to address them, and educate students on how they can protect themselves and others from sexual harassment. With this foundation, students will be equipped to manage this issue when they enter the workforce.

Anti-harassment policy

A 2017 survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission showed that 94 per cent of students who were sexually harassed in Australia did not make a formal complaint to their university.

They feared that the university would not believe them or take any action, and some students thought that the situation was not serious enough to warrant a report, the study showed.

To address these fears, universities can enact an anti-harassment policy that emphasises their commitment towards protecting the well-being of the campus community, as suggested by a 2011 report on campus-based sexual harassment by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Besides stating the university’s position on the issue, the policy could also include examples of what constitutes sexual harassment.

Harvard University’s Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Policy is a good example of a strong anti-harassment policy. It details the specific behaviours that constitute sexual harassment.

It also offers an assurance to its campus community that these cases of sexual harassment will be treated with sensitivity and confidentiality, which is perhaps the most crucial aspect of such a policy.

Of course, these assurances have to be seen through. AAUW’s report found that most harassed students did not turn to anyone for help – especially not to school staff – because those educators were not perceived to be helpful.

Hence, to alleviate this, the report suggests that all school authorities who will potentially liaise with students who have been sexually harassed must undergo training to learn how to communicate with them appropriately. They also need to be clear and prompt in redirecting the student to the appropriate authority.

Despite the benefits of an anti-harassment policy, some people might find its unclear out-of-bounds markers worrying. A research study done by Harvard Business Review found that anti-harassment policies seemed to suggest that any behavior could be sexual harassment if an employee perceived it to be as such.

To mitigate this fear, the policy will also need to state that false allegations are strictly prohibited, as Harvard University’s policy highlights. Nevertheless, these fears must not hinder universities from taking a tough stance against sexual harassment. Crafting a policy is no easy task but it is a start, and can continue being a work-in-progress once it is enacted.

Student-centric solutions

Student leaders could help to bridge the gap between students and the administrators overseeing the anti-harassment policy by engaging students in policy making and development.

According to former director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales Andrea Durbach, formalised input from students in the design, implementation and revision of strategies will demonstrate genuine university collaboration. This also validates students’ experiences and contribution.

It is thus critical for student leaders to be the ones to communicate the policy clearly to the student body, and engage students by surveying them to learn more about their experiences with sexual harassment or organising focus group discussions for in-depth insights.

By involving students in the policy-making process, this will “guide universities towards a more proactive and coherent position, rather than a reactive and piecemeal approach, to address and prevent sexual violence,” said Durbach in an article about university sexual violence guidelines published in July this year.

Universities will also be able to formulate policies that resonate strongly with students, leading to more effective outcomes.

Educate bystanders

However, policies do not guarantee the complete prevention of sexual harassment, even if they are well-crafted. Universities also need to foster a campus culture that protects victims of sexual harassment.

Besides including information on positive bystander intervention in the anti-harassment policy, universities need to increase awareness about this and actively encourage people who have witnessed instances of sexual harassment to speak up. This is an area that Singaporean universities can do more of.

According to a 2015 AWARE report, only one in eight respondents who knew a victim of sexual harassment said they offered help. A common theme that emerged was that these bystanders often asked victims to stand up for themselves, ignore their perpetrator’s actions, or be more careful in the future.

Victims often told no one, or only a close friend, about their experiences. The most frequent response that victims received when they actually confided in someone was that of dismissal. The other party either laughed, or told them to ignore it.

Educating students on how to deal with sexual harassment, especially when it happens to someone they know, can create a culture in which students understand that sexual harassment is something that should be dealt with formally.

Students can be educated about sexual harassment prevention during freshmen orientation camps, which have recently been in the news for precisely this matter -- in 2016, a report in The Straits Times featured an article on the increased sexualised orientation activities in the National University of Singapore.

Change will not happen overnight — in fact, research shows that changing the cultural norms about sexual harassment at a school can take years.

But change is necessary, and it needs to start now.