NGOs demand ministry, MARA start independent probe of alleged sexual harassment, abuse in schools

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Three women’s groups pressed the Education Ministry and Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) today for investigation panels into online allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by their teachers on their students.

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The three were the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Sisters In Islam (SIS) and Pertubuhan Pembangunan Kendiri Wanita dan Gadis (WOMEN:girls).

In a joint statement, they expressed alarm over the allegations made on Twitter, which included students having their private parts checked and searched to ensure they were not carrying contraband.

Some also alleged they were asked to expose their underwear to show that they were menstruating during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in order to prove that they were not able to fast as a result.

The revelations exploded on Twitter after a user, @TerryDieHeiden, posted a question asking if teachers still checked students’ private parts for menstruation. He added that such acts should not be done, as it is an invasion of privacy which must be reported to parents or authorities.

He said that he had posed the same questions years ago and was now asking if it was still happening in Malaysian schools and boarding schools.

“AWAM, SIS and WOMEN:girls call upon MoE and MARA to set up an investigative task force, starting with our state boarding schools to collect empirical evidence and factual insights into this systemic issue from the students themselves. In that process, survivors should be given full assurance of safety and privacy, with their identities kept confidential.

“The results of the task force should then be shared with the relevant authorities, including child rights and women’s rights NGOs, which can then be used as a basis for collaborations to form robust policies, including restorative remedies, that will be properly and vigorously enforced in these schools to promote zero tolerance towards harassment, abuse and sexual violations.

“Parents are also crucial stakeholders in this issue, and we also call on them to not only hold these schools accountable for the enforcement of these zero-tolerance school policies, but also inculcate awareness of fundamental values of respect for all persons and gender equality in their children. The future of our children, and ultimately our country, depends on the realisation of these actions. We must act now,” the statement read.

In the Twitter thread, user @syauietonn alleged that such practices still existed at Mara junior science colleges (MRSM).

Another user @umaigorgy2007 alleged that her friend, a student in a government religious school, had her genitals checked to ensure she was menstruating in order to be excused from prayers.

Twitter user @nashuhahahaha alleged of an incident at a tahfiz camp when she was 15, during which girls who could not perform their prayers owing to menstruation were forced to swab their genitals to prove they were genuinely on their period.

“Not sure if they still practice that but I didn’t know it was wrong back then,” she added.

In the statement, the NGOs said the alarming culture of abuse of power was not new in Malaysia and that the government, authorities, parents and society must take notice and action.

“Child welfare has consistently been among our most important national priorities. We have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1995, with full commitment to Article 19 whereby we shall “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse”. In 2017, Malaysia passed the landmark Sexual Offences Against Children Act in less than a week, which was crucial in criminalising child grooming and pornography.

“With school authorities standing by and doing nothing, or telling the survivors that they should cover up more, they are sanctioning sexual harassment, as existing perpetrators continue to sexually harass others without any impediment and new younger perpetrators model after them in their behaviours,” the group added.

The NGOs also revealed that in some schools, teachers allegedly abused their power and used intimidation with impunity, such as by taking female students into locked rooms to coerce confessions of relationships with boys.

They said the confessors were then publicly shamed, such as by having their private correspondence with boys posted on notice boards for all to read.

“In some cases, teachers are even involving students in the punitive moral policing of their peers, by allowing male prefects to make public speeches that objectify girls through statements such as if girls do not wear ‘handsocks’, their skin can be seen through their school uniform, including their skin colour; and asking boys to monitor which female peers are wearing the tightest clothing and to report back to them,” they added.

They added that boys also did not fully escape the alleged abuse, claiming that some were kicked, punched and even choked by teachers during interrogations.

Other forms of sexual abuse include allegedly having their nipples pinched or their scrotums crushed as punishment, being derided as pondan (effiminate), caned, and encouraging peers to bully and abuse them.

“On a larger scale, if this pattern of abuse and these worrying trends of incidences are not properly investigated, our schools will end up being institutions that indoctrinate generation after generation of students with bullying and abusive behaviour and where the survivors are concerned, a lifetime of trauma.

“These schools will also continue to instil patriarchal values that will lead our future generations to believe that women are inferior to men and are meant to be sexualised and/or objectified, thereby ensuring that ‘Malaysia will never be able to achieve gender equality, not to mention producing an entire generation of dysfunctional adults’,” they added. – MMO