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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Nightmare continues for sexual harassment victim from UM

 


The mental torture never ends for a sexual harassment victim.

Soleil Ching (not her real name), who was sexually harassed by an associate professor at Universiti Malaya two years ago, is still having nightmares.

She simply can't get it out of her mind.

"In the nightmare, I was sexually harassed, again. I was on a bus and he was sitting behind me. I resisted and told him 'Don't touch me', but he did not stop.

"There was a girl sitting next to me, and there are many people sitting in front of me. I yelled, loudly, and everyone around must have heard it.

"But I feel that their reaction was like 'Oh, she has resisted, so maybe there is no need to help her anymore'. No one helped me in the end.

"I told him 'Stop it, or I will throw you under the bus!' Again, he did not listen. I was going to pull him off and throw him down. 

"Some boys were sitting near the door. I told them he had been sexually harassing me, so please help me get him out of the bus.

"However, they were too kind. They just held him at the front to prevent him from harassing me. Finally, I got back my peace of mind..."

Encounter with associate professor

Ching will never forget that day. It was June 3, 2019, the study week before the final examination. The corridor leading to the lecturers' office was quiet as students were studying at home.

The associate professor harassed her in his office when she went to hand in her homework and return some books.

He hugged her, touched her hips, then her neck, and asked several questions that invaded her privacy. Knowing that there was no one outside the office, she was full of fear and did not dare confront him directly.

When he tried to use his finger to touch her chin, she resisted and blocked his advances. She quickly gave some excuses, then grabbed her bag and left.

Through her classmates, he continued asking her to go to his office. He claimed that he could solve whatever questions she had in preparation for the examination.

"I was really stressed, nearly on the verge of a breakdown. He continued to ask me to go to his office afterwards...," the 24-year-old told Malaysiakini in an interview recently.

During the examination, although she sat at the corner of a huge lecture hall, he approached to talk to her. Fortunately, her friend saw it and helped to divert his attention by raising his hand and asked him some questions.

"I took his class, so I still have to sit for his exam. I was thinking of not going and deliberately flunk the subject. But my friend persuaded me to go," she said.

Punishment not revealed

On July 1, 2019, she lodged an official complaint to the UM integrity unit over the incident.

Months later, although the associate professor was suspended during the investigation, he was still able to enter the campus and walk around the department.

"He often comes to the university in the evening. I was so afraid of meeting him. Our department is so small. In fact, I met him a few times."

One of the lecturers told her that she should just hide if she was afraid.

"Although I dared to report him, I was still afraid that he will come back and do something to me. I felt puzzled. Why I am the one who had to hide, why not him?

"He was the perpetrator, and everyone in the department knew it was him. But he can still swagger around. In contrast, I was like a rat crossing the street, avoiding him everywhere."

The handling of her sexual harassment complaint was slow. The associate professor reportedly had retired in June 2020, one year after the incident.

Until then, Ching did not know what was his punishment. Dissatisfied with the way UM proceeded with the matter, she lodged a police report in July 2020.

Soleil Ching (not real name) after lodging her police report

Accompanied by the representatives from the UM Student Union and the UM Association of New Youth (Umany), she also held a press conference to expose the incident to the public. 

After the incident attracted media attention, UM responded that action had been taken against the associate professor. However, the university refused to reveal what the punishment was, citing privacy concerns and administrative regulations. 

The police later confirmed ending their investigation because the suspect had already faced disciplinary action by UM. 

According to UM's Code of Practice on the Prevention and Handling of Sexual Harassment Case, if the party accused is an employee, the possible punishment can be a warning, fine, removal of emolument rights, postponement in salary adjustment, salary deduction, demotion or termination. 

Umany president Yap Wen Qing claimed that the associate professor was demoted and had already retired by the time verdict was given, according to The Star

More victims but they did not pursue

Research conducted by Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2011 showed that over three-quarters of undergraduate students experienced sexual harassment on campus at least once. Among them, female students accounted for more than 60 percent of the victims. 

Sexual harassment is rampant and it has been a long-standing issue.

However, Ching's case is rare. She not only filed a complaint with the UM's authority and kept pursuing it, but she also reported the matter to the police and exposed the issue to the public.

During this interview, she revealed that the associate professor allegedly harassed at least three more students.

She said the earliest case can be traced back to more than ten years ago and before her case, there was a foreign student who was also allegedly harassed.

"He used similar tactics. However, I cannot disclose the details of how it happened because I need to keep it confidential," Ching said, adding that she was the third victim.

After making her complaint, she said there was a fourth victim who went through a similarly unpleasant experience.

Ching said some victims were unwilling to show up because they just did not want to continue enduring the bad experience. They hesitated and eventually decided not to file a complaint.

"Most victims usually don't want to get involved with this anymore. If they expose it, it will even be more difficult for them. I think I can understand why they are not willing to do so.

"If no one speaks up, the society will assume that these things do not happen and the issue does not exist."

In fact, she created the name "Wei Yin" for herself, which literally means "the only voice" in Chinese.

"Perhaps, it can also mean treating your inner voice as the only voice, believing in it and following it," she said in a positive tone.

Self-condemnation

In fact, Ching was not filled with such positivity from the beginning.

She described herself as an introvert who was always quiet in class. After being sexually harassed, she fell into vicious self-condemnation and self-doubt.

"I actually blamed myself at first, I asked myself a lot of questions. What if I didn't go to his office, what if I didn't wear a skirt on that day, what if I didn't wear it like this..."

She loves to wear skirts and wearing them is obviously not a sin. With the help of her friends, she gradually overcame the self-doubts.

"My friends shared with me some relatively correct concepts. They encouraged me and told me that it was not my fault, but the perpetrator's fault."

Initially, she was worried that exposing it would tarnish the reputation of the department and the university. After the encouragement she received from her friends, she started to believe that her action could prevent others from being victimised.

"If a university wants to improve or preserve its reputation, it should try its best to help the victims by solving their problems, instead of burying the issue."

In the aftermath, Ching and her friend figured out that the associate professor may have targeted her as the "prey". She recalled that he once asked her classmates whether she lived alone.

"Looking back, we felt it was all premeditated when he chose some of his preys. Maybe he thought since I seemed very quiet, I would not tell anyone if he treated me that way."

After the incident, Ching also found out that she could have submitted her assignment to the department's office, instead of the associate professor's office.

"At that time, he said he wanted to get the documents from the department for me to sign. So, he went out and I was waiting inside. When he came in later, he started to behave strangely. It was like he changed into a different person suddenly."

No support from family

The whole year after the incident, Ching went through mental preparation and a journey of self-empowerment before she lodged the police report and faced the media.

She also took a class on gender studies and researched articles related to sexual harassment to equip herself on the subject.

"Through reading them, I got to realise that it wasn't my fault. It was the perpetrator's fault. I should not blame myself. The incident happened on June 3, 2019, and the press conference was on July 15, 2020. I did a lot of mental preparation before I faced the press."

In the beginning, Ching did not have the courage to tell her family what happened to her. A day before the press conference, she decided to do it.

"When I was about to tell them, I couldn't speak a word, so I just hung up the phone. Later, it was my friend who helped me to call them and tell them about it because I really couldn't speak."

Unfortunately, she did not get the support she wanted from her parents. This left her utterly disappointed.

The next morning, she received a call from her mother. "I have discussed with your father all night, and we think it would be better not report to the police," her mother told her.

"My mother said that I should not fight against the university. What if the perpetrator sued me for defamation? 

"She also said she had told our relatives that I am about to graduate from UM. If I couldn't graduate on time, how would she explain to the relatives? I was really disheartened at that time."

Ching also recalled her experience of facing police officers and reporters for the first time and having the unpleasant task of repeating how she was sexually harassed.

"Every time you speak out about it, you have to recall the unpleasant incident. It's a kind of secondary damage... the process of repeating my story. Some believed and encouraged me, but there were also voices of disbelief."

After the press conference, she said her mother was not interested in her physical and mental condition, and only cared about the number of reporters who attended.

Her mother's reaction made her even more disappointed and discouraged.

"I tried to understand them. My parents experienced the racial riots in the late 60s, and the Chinese (at their age) tend to be relatively reserved and restrained.

"Therefore, my parents may think that Chinese people should just endure everything, whatever it is. That's how they think. Fighting the university's authority, lodging police report and revealing all to the public... a very big deal for them.

"I can understand them now, but it doesn't mean it didn't hurt me. I can't really forgive them until now."

Pain and scars

The whole thing was stressful for Ching. To put it simply, she was emotionally overwhelmed. She could not help cutting her wrist several times.

"I care about my appearance very much. When I found out that it will leave scars on my wrist, I told myself I won't do it anymore."

Her university life changed dramatically. After the incident, she made the effort to cope with the pain and barely maintained her studies.

"I felt there was something that has not really ended. As I was immersed in the vicious cycle of emotional pain, I could not enjoy my Year 3 of university life."

The perpetrator was her thesis adviser and she had no choice but to change the topic of her thesis after the incident. This further delayed her graduation. Ching is now a fifth-year student. 

After two years, she feels the matter is not over and justice has yet to be served.

Some may ask "What else does she want?" since the associate professor had received his punishment.

"I just want him to know what he did was wrong. He doesn't."

Ching said he seemed to be living his retirement life as a scholar, while she is still facing the trauma of sexual harassment.

After the nightmare, she realised the possible psychological impact of the incident may not have been properly addressed.

This year, she finally stepped into a counselling room, searching for an answer. - Mkini

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