Over the past few years, the #MeToo and Times Up anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment movements have swept the globe. The high visibility of these movements on social media, which played a part in reducing the stigma placed on victims, led to a wave of women — and men — speaking up about their personal experiences with harassment and violence.
In Singapore, the collective solidarity and support that these movements garnered likely spurred more sexual violence survivors to post about their experiences and in some cases, to seek help.
“For some survivors, posting about their experiences online can be a way to break barriers and call injustice out, so that better systems get put in place, survivors are believed more frequently, and more perpetrators are held accountable,” says Shailey Hingorani, Aware’s head of research and advocacy. At the height of the #MeToo phenomenon in the last quarter of 2017, Aware Singapore’s Sexual Assault Care Centre saw a 79 per cent increase in the number of people reaching out, compared to the previous quarter.
Turning Point In Singapore
But despite this jump, the response here was comparatively muted compared to the rest of the world. It was only last year, when university undergraduate, Monica Baey, posted a series of Stories on Instagram expressing her frustration about the way her school dealt with a voyeur that the nation’s attitude towards sexual harassment began to shift noticeably.
“Monica Baey’s case last year was a key moment that advanced the national conversation on harassment – and also resulted in real change at the institutional level, with a number of institutions of higher learning revising their policies and procedures for sexual violence on campus,” Hinogari observes.
Baey had been filmed in the shower at her student residence in the National University of Singapore. Nicholas Lim, the perpetrator, was issued a conditional warning by the police and received a one-semester suspension from the university, which she felt was a light punishment. Her posts about the incident and the school’s response to her case went viral and quickly sparked a national reckoning.
In the following months, her case was discussed in Parliament and spurred NUS and other universities to strengthen their disciplinary frameworks against sexual offenders, while at the same time improving the support network for victims.
Better Protection For Women
Recent changes to the Penal Code and Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) may also give women encouragement that their experiences will be taken seriously, say experts. For example, the Penal Code now includes offences such as cyberflashing and voyeurism and POHA has been extended to cover intimate partners.
“If you feel that you’re constantly harassed, that’s one case you might consider applying for a protection order, says Jennifer Chih, senior lawyer and director at PK Wong & Nair LLC during a dialogue session organised by Girl, Talk, a non-profit campaign led by four female undergraduates from Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
Mobile devices, which double up as recording devices, can also help record evidence of harassment or assault, to avoid a “he said versus she said” scenario, she adds.
The broader changes in society have in turn motivated more women into taking proactive action to protect themselves from unwanted advances and harassment. On university campuses, some students are leading the way in helping their peers learn to react if they happen to be caught in such situations.
Danelia Chim, 23, co-founder of Girl, Talk says, “As students who ourselves live on campus, we created Girl, Talk because we believe that no one should feel vulnerable or afraid in what should be a safe space for living and learning.”
The team did a survey of female undergraduates found that only 32 per cent of respondents were confident of responding in a difficult campus harassment situation and just 17 per cent of respondents knew where to find information about coping with and responding to campus harassment.
So, they organised a series of virtual reality simulations where participants would get the opportunity to practice their reactions to real-life harassment situations without compromising on their safety and comfort. Going through such roleplay practices help condition individuals so that they feel empowered to react should they encounter a real-life incident.
Ms Sylvie Lian, clinical psychologist at Psych Connect, says, “Like how the police and soldiers practice [their skills] so that it becomes automatic in high-stress situations. We can do so through roleplay to make it more likely that you’ll do it in a high-stress situation. Having discussions and roleplay helps with how you’ll react.”
Still, while it is a good move to empower women through strategies like self-defence, Internet safety and other protective measures, there is more that can be done to address the root cause of sexual misconduct.
“It is a fallacy to believe that any of these measures can guarantee someone protection against sexual assault,” says Aware’s Hingorani. “When we place too much emphasis on women’s self-protection, we risk slipping into victim-blaming by implying that women are assaulted because they failed to protect themselves enough. In fact, the fault of the assault lies entirely on the hands of the perpetrator, not the survivor, and we should not forget that.”
Instead, the focus should be on changing long-held attitudes towards harassment and violence. For instance, companies are increasingly offering training sessions to teach employees and managers of both genders to recognise, address and prevent harassment.
But issues such as cultural misconceptions and a continued hypersexualisation of women can be tackled head-on at an even earlier age. “We strongly believe that preventing sexual violence begins with teaching young people positive, healthy, empathetic approaches to sex, says Hingorani. “Comprehensive sexuality education in Singaporean schools would be greatly improved if it expanded its focus beyond abstinence to more holistic and practical skills, such as how to negotiate consent with a partner.”
It is time to take these next steps in addressing and debunking common cultural myths and attitudes about sexual behaviour. Only then can society collectively make the world a safer place for the vulnerable.