“Commit to Act, Commit to Change: Walk the Mile with Survivors of Sexual Abuse” Spring Workshop
Organised by The University of Hong Kong
Opening Address by Dr York Y.N. CHOW, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission （只备英文版）
Ms Ng; Distinguished speakers; Honoured guests; Friends,
Good morning. It is a pleasure for me to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Indeed, today’s workshop addresses an important topic, one that is of great concern to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Sexual violence is an immense obstacle to our vision of a just and inclusive society. All of us need to stand together to tackle this issue, with commitment to act and to change.
Unfortunately, as you know, sexual violence remains prevalent and most likely underreported. Sexual harassment remains one of the most common complaints we receive under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance. In 2012, sexual harassment complaints made up 42% of complaints received under the SDO (114 out of 272 complaints). Sexual harassment will be one of our priority areas going forward.
In an EOC study released late last year which examined sexual harassment in an education setting, we found that half of the students had encountered some form of sexual harassment over the past year. Of these, more than half chose to keep silent.
This ‘culture of silence’ is not surprising, given that, far too often, we still hear from those who have faced sexual violence that they were blamed for the harassing acts. Indeed, in our society, there is still a very real undercurrent of victim-blaming. It is not uncommon to hear that victims were told that they should have dressed or acted differently to avoid the harassment or abuse.
Some victims keep quiet to avoid negative judgment or consequences. In our study from last year, student participants in the focus group said that the fear of revenge is one of the reasons they do not report sexual harassment to their teachers.
Worsening matters is the absence of mechanism or readiness to deal effectively and sensitively with sexual harassment, which also deters victims from speaking out for justice. For instance, in our aforementioned study, some students noted that teachers may be too inexperienced or embarrassed to deal with the issue effectively. Others felt that nothing will change, because harassment behavior is part of the campus culture. For instance, in the university setting, some ‘student hazing’ activities in new-student orientation openly involve sexual harassment elements. To address this, we need to engage the student body and raise their awareness.
In my experience, far too often in the employment setting, human resource practitioners would also prefer not to deal with sexual harassment complaints. The perception of passivity on the part of the authorities, and the fear of “revictimisation” from insensitive handling of complaints, undoubtedly helps to breed the present culture of silence, which impacts the ability of the victims to seek redress.
Sexual violence is even less likely to be reported if it were committed by someone with whom the victim is intimately involved. According to the International Violence against Women Survey, published in 2012, Hong Kong women were among the least likely in the world to view violence perpetrated by an intimate partner, such as a spouse, as a crime. The survey’s authors identified traditional Chinese values as the culprit, whereby one is reluctant to identify actions committed by a family member as a crime for fear it would bring shame upon the whole family as well as themselves. Patriarchal attitudes also impede the reporting of intimate partner sexual violence.
For the victims suffering in silence, the road to recovery is likely to be long and painful. You will hear some of their stories today. As a medical doctor, I can add that, without emotional support, the psychological wounds may last far longer than it takes for the physical injuries to mend. Unfortunately, sexual violence still imparts stigmatization on the victims. I feel very strongly that Hong Kong still lacks sufficient support and understanding on this issue; more must be done to ensure that insensitive labeling does not harm victims in the future. That is why prompt, sensitive, and comprehensive assistance to victims is necessary, to empower them to find the strength to heal, and to trust again.
We must work together to build an environment where victims of sexual violence can speak out. To begin with, we need to confront the issue head-on and reflect on gender stereotypes prevalent in our mindset, which underpins systemic injustice. By tolerating sexual harassment and abuse, by responding with silence, by blaming the victims and treating them with shame, we as a society are perpetuating the cycle of violence against our own.
How often do we see images that portray the different genders negatively still in the media? How often do we watch films that, subtly and overtly, tell men that it is ok to objectify women?
Sexual violence is the result of many forces – of stereotypes about men and women, of existing power imbalance between the sexes, of a culture that breeds impunity and disrespect, often unwittingly.
If outdated notions about masculinity and femininity are still perpetuated, sexual violence will continue.
If one still views others as inferior because of their gender, sexual violence will continue.
If one continues to tell a girl that it is better that she chooses a “female-friendly” profession, one is inadvertently telling those around us that girls are less capable than boys, and sexual violence will continue.
If we tolerate sexual violence by not speaking out against it, whether as a victim or as a bystander, it will continue.
If we do not remember that we can be role models to others around us – as a parent, a partner, a friend, a leader – to promote gender equality in our own lives, then sexual violence will continue.
The Government also needs to take the lead on this front. It must strengthen support for victims of sexual violence and widen the range of training for relevant responders to ensure that revictimisation does not occur. It must heighten awareness of the intersections between sexual violence and other forms of discrimination, such as those based on race, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, in order to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are not unprotected from harm.
Organisations, including employers, schools, and service providers, should take the proactive lead to ensure that policies and practices are in place to deal with any sexual harassment or abuse with sensitivity. To start with, a policy statement must be in place to spell out the organisation’s stance that sexual violence will not be tolerated. This has the effect of setting the tone, loud and clear, for the organizational culture. The EOC is currently working with a number of related organisations in the business and education sectors, including chambers of commerce, to ensure that they have internal guidelines and protocols to deal with sexual harassment. Most have been quite cooperative.
While real change takes time, we can begin, bit by bit, towards making a difference. Initiatives such as today’s workshop go a long way not only to raise awareness on this issue, but also to find joint solutions to address the problem. I am sure that today’s panels and discussions will shed some light on this longstanding injustice, so that we can strive towards our shared goals of eliminating gender violence and achieving true gender equality. The Equal Opportunities Commission is committed to working with all of you - to act and change for a fairer society free from violence for women and men.
Thank you again for inviting me. I wish you all a productive morning ahead.