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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Tackling sexual harassment – UWCSEA East edition

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Tackling sexual harassment – UWCSEA East edition

According to statistics, 5 students per class at UWCSEA East have or will experience sexual violence.

To many people living in the very safe environment Singapore provides, the idea of sexual assault can seem distant and abstract. Even in the era of #MeToo, sexual assault is still shockingly common. Though it is hard to imagine, according to a study done by AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research) in 2015, 1 in every 3 women in Singapore experience some form of sexual assault.

AWARE defines sexual harassment as anything that “involves threatening, abusive or insulting words, behaviours or communications of a sexual nature. Such behaviours may be actionable if a) it is meant to cause you harassment, alarm or distress or b) is likely to cause you these feelings and you heard or saw the offending behaviours or words.”

Next time you are at school keep in mind that just from looking at the statistics, around 3-4 girls in the average class at UWCSEA East have or will experience sexual violence at some point.

For these reasons, it is important that all 2557 students attending UWCSEA East are provided with proper support and awareness when it comes to sexual violence. As students become increasingly independent, it is vital that they are prepared to deal with these situations. To achieve this, students must first gain some context as to what sexual harassment looks like in Singapore.

AWARE is one of many organisations battling sexual harassment in Singapore. At AWARE, clients go in for sessions with case managers where they can get emotional, legal and medical help. Katie Powell (pictured left) from the service office worked at AWARE for 2 years before joining UWCSEA. In an interview, Katie shared some of the challenges that came with the job.

It was common for clients to have trouble opening up and talking about the trauma they experienced. She recalled a case with a client who was convinced her perpetrator was hiding under her bed every night. “In order to relieve that, rather than try to convince her she was safe with words, we suggested she adapt her physical environment to provide a space that made her feel safe.” Katie suggested she cut the legs off of her bed and “In turn, after some time, the nightmares stopped.”

Other cases Katie talked about were clients who went into a state of dissociation. One moment a client would be answering questions and in a split second they would be unresponsive. It would take up to 30 minutes to revive them by snapping her fingers and reminding them that they are in a safe space.

Here are some quick facts from AWARE:

  • 83% of victims are assaulted by someone they know
  • 60% of victims are repeatedly assaulted
  • The most reported form of sexual harassment in Singapore is recieving unwanted pornographic material or advances

On the positive side there have been several recent changes to the Singapore penal code (facts from Katie):

  1. As of January 2020 women can charge their husbands with rape
  2. As of January 2020 it is an offence to engage in “doxxing”—when an individual or entity publishes the personal information of a person or people related to him (e.g. relatives, friends or colleagues) in order to harass, threaten or facilitate violence against them. (according to More information on doxxing can be found here.

Boys can be victims too

A dangerous misconception around sexual harassment is that it only happens to women. A study done by sg.yougov found that around 10% of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment in Singapore. In the context of UWCSEA, this would mean an average of one boy per class. On top of that, there is a significant drop in the numbers of men who report sexual harassment compared to women. Perhaps, this is the consequence of gay sex being illegal in Singapore. Though the government claims that they will never charge someone for engaging in same sex relations, under the penal code it is classified as a crime. To many people, reporting sexual harassment can mean confessing to a crime.

Reporting sexual violence

Unfortunately there is a lot of stigma surrounding sexual harassment in Singapore. According to a survey done by AWARE, 40% of people aged 18-39 and 50% of people above age 50 believe women dressing provocatively are asking to get harassed. This is a poor reflection on the environment we create for victims of sexual violence. Katie reported her “frustration was (also) at the criminal justice system which makes it difficult to prosecute perpetrators and is discouraging and even further damaging for many survivors.” Consequently, several victims chose to let their case go unreported.

For the reasons listed in the figure above, many victims feel that the very draining process of going to court is just not worth it. Sadly, sg.yougov states that only 52% of Singaporean women tell someone when they have been sexually assaulted and only 19% tell the police.

What does UWCSEA do to tackle this issue?
PSE sessions well-equip each student with knowledge of Singapore's laws and tactics towards avoiding sexual harassment. What students do not realise is most of the time when put in situations like this, victims freeze and cannot control their actions. If students are better informed on consent and finding help, there would be fewer situations where people would have to protect themselves.

UWCSEA has a great counselling program with a team of well prepared counsellors who can talk to students who may have experienced any form of trauma. If a student feels uncomfortable talking to a counsellor, another option can be to talk to a trusted teacher. They could also ask a trusted teacher to accompany them to the counselling center. Katie explained the first thing a counsellor will do is “evaluate if the student is in danger or a danger to someone else. Based on this response the counsellor will evaluate what further support is required. But the counsellor will always speak with the student first before sharing anything with parents or other adults. The counsellor and student will come up with a plan together on how to move forward. Whether that is with further appointments with the counsellor or some other further support.”

What can you do?
Especially since most perpetrators know the victim, it is unlikely that avoiding provocative clothes or certain areas in Singapore can help avoid sexual harassment. Not to mention, it is strategies like these that rebel against the idea that it is never the victim's fault. No matter what you were wearing, whether you were under an influence or out late at night, it is never your fault if you have been sexually assaulted.

Instead, Katie says her first piece of advice would be “to know that you are not alone…I completely understand that this is something difficult to talk about but there are people in this school who really care. The counselling staff is well prepared to deal with these kinds of issues.” Katie emphasised the importance of finding someone you trust and telling them. Know that you should not push yourself to talk about things that you are not ready to talk about but even slowly opening up to someone can be enough. If you really do not feel ready to open up to someone you know, an alternative is to anonymously talk to one of the hotlines provided by AWARE on their website. This way you can begin to seek support before you feel comfortable talking to someone in person.

If you are in immediate danger, never hesitate to call 999. Instances where you should call 999 can include getting a hunch that someone is taking a picture of your skirt on the mrt or sensing that someone is following you home.

Here is an article explaining more on what you should do if you have been sexually harassed:

Katie also suggests that students make sure that they are aware of the following information:

  1. According to SACC (sexual assault care center), if both parties are below age 14 engage in sex, but both give consent: "Technically, this still constitutes the offence of statutory rape. However, the police, exercising its discretion and taking into account the age of the parties, may not initiate any charges."
  2. According to SACC, a boy legally cannot be a victim of rape as rape is narrowly defined under S375, Penal Code as the penile penetration of a vagina. However SACC still provides support to boys and men who experience sexual violence.
  3. Though No means No, Yes also means Yes. Not saying no is not equivalent to saying yes when giving consent to engage in sexual activity.

When helping a friend deal with an issue like this remember to be empathetic and always take the issue seriously. A major value Katie emphasised is that you never know the back story. An example of this value was a woman who claimed she was being sexually abused every night. Most people thought she was lying, especially since her stories did not make much sense. However, after listening very carefully, Katie drew the conclusion that the client was in fact sexually assaulted and was having PTSD flashbacks every night since.

When a friend opens up to you, you should always react without judgement. Avoid asking questions like “where were you”, “what time was it” and “what were you wearing.” These questions can be very damaging. Just listening without judgement is enough. Likewise, be conscious that you do not push anyone to share beyond what they are ready to share. If someone tells you “something bad happened to me, I am not ready to talk about it right now,” just let them know that whenever they are ready you will be there for them.

Alternative questions to the ones I mentioned above can include “Are you safe to go home?” or “Is this still happening to you?” Additionally, make sure to ask if they are mentally safe and look for signs of self harm. As well as that, ensure that you ask what they need rather than assuming what is best for them.

We are lucky to live in a safe country and be part of a supportive, non-judgemental community at UWCSEA. However, this does not mean that we still should not be cautious and take the issue of sexual violence seriously. It is crucial that all students are prepared and aware in regards to sexual violence and most importantly, feel supported by the community. It is up to us to change the way people look at sexual violence to make the process of recovery easier for victims.

Special thanks to Katie Powell for all her help.

4 May 2020
Media and Republish

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