Why college students in Taiwan hesitate to report sexual harassment

An ineffective reporting system, fear of repercussions and a lack of protections keep young women from reporting

By Joy Chang  /  Contributing reporter

Wed, Jul 11, 2018 - Page 13

Tso Shin-pin (左欣平) froze when her teacher unexpectedly hugged her. Frightened, she immediately dropped the course.

It wasn’t the first time that Tso was made to feel uncomfortable. A classmate had caressed her thigh without permission while driving her to school.

“This happens all the time,” Tso says.

She didn’t report either incident to Tamkung University, a school she graduated from last month.

Tso’s experiences with sexual harassment on campus are all too common. Even though Taiwan is progressive when it comes to gender equality, sexual harassment remains prevalent and the reporting system in universities is largely ineffective.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT PERVASIVE

Compared to sexual assault, sexual harassment occurs far more often and its prevalence makes it more acceptable. According to the Gender Equality Committee of the Executive Yuan, there were 13,755 cases of sexual assault reported in 2016, but only 1,091 for sexual harassment.

“Of course the real number of sexual harassment cases is much higher,” says Tu Ying-chiu (杜瑛秋), the general supervisor of research and development at the Garden of Hope Foundation (勵馨基金會), a Taipei-based non-government organization (NGO) dedicated to helping abused women and girls.

Tu says that the number does not reflect reality because, unlike sexual assault, it is not compulsory for institutions to report sexual harassment.

According to the Sexual Assault Crime Prevention Act (性侵害犯罪防治法), when institutions learn about a suspected sexual assault case, they must report it to the competent authority within 24 hours. However, they are not required to report incidents of sexual harassment, but only instructed to “take effective corrective measures.”

“It’s not compulsory and there’s no mechanism for us to report. It’s really up to the victim,” Tu says. “There’s nothing we can do if they don’t want to report.”

Huang Sue-ying (黃淑英), founder of Taiwan Women’s Link (台灣女人連線), says that harassment is largely endured by the victim because it’s considered acceptable behavior.

“People are so used to it that they don’t think it’s a serious problem. It’s just a touch,” Huang says.

In the past, sexual harassment was often referred to as “eating tofu” (吃豆腐), a catchall expression for acceptable teasing or touching. It was only in the 1990s that it was defined as sexual harassment and later criminalized in the Sexual Harassment Prevention Act (性騷擾防治法) in 2005.

Jhon Jhia-jhain (鍾佳臻), a student representative from Tamkung’s gender equity education committee, says that they receive three to four sexual harassment complaints every semester. But she believes that the number of cases is much higher.

If the harassment isn’t bordering on assault, Jhon says, “many victims don’t consider it something that needs to be made public.”

CONFUSING REPORTING SYSTEM

Reporting a case of sexual harassment is an arduous process. The victim has to file a complaint, gather evidence and undergo an investigation by the university’s gender equity education committee. The process is time-consuming and wearing, and it is usually not transparent.

The complicated reporting system is not limited to Tamkung University. At National Taiwan University (NTU), National Chengchi University and National Taiwan Normal University, three of Taiwan’s top schools, students are not shown how the committee operates and where to report their cases.

Cheng Che (鄭澈), a former student representative on NTU’s gender equity education committee, says he knew nothing about the committee before he joined.

“I knew it existed, but I didn’t know anything about its operation and what it does,” he says. “Most students don’t know how to seek help through the committee.”

Jhon says that she has advised Tamkung’s committee to cooperate with student organizations to make the reporting system and other resources regarding sexual harassment more accessible.

VICTIMS NOT PROTECTED

Another concern voiced by victims is that they are not protected.

Jhon says in one of the cases sent to Tamkung’s gender equity committee earlier this year, the victim, who had filed a complaint against a professor, refused to proceed with the reporting process because she did not want him to find out her identity. However, the committee went to the accused professor’s department and gave a general statement on sexual harassment prevention. The administrator of the committee also privately informed the professor about the complaint, Jhon says.

“The professor was given the heads-up,” she says.

Jhon adds that since all the reported cases from this semester would be discussed at a meeting in late June, the accused professor was given time to prepare a defense.

Committees do not have the authority to decide the penalty when the offender is a faculty member. They can only suggest a punishment. The final decision is made by the university’s faculty evaluation committee.

Jhon says the gender equity committee does not have much power because all faculty members are also managed by the Office of Human Resources, which is directly under the office of Tamkung’s president.

She adds that penalties vary from case to case.

“Professors involved in such cases may be suspended or transferred,” Jhon says. When asked about the status of professors who have been accused of sexual harassment, she says that most of them are still teaching at the university.

FEAR OF NOT BEING BELIEVED

Victims of sexual harassment hesitate to talk about their experiences or report out of fear of not being believed.

Tso was unable to react when she was sexually harassed by her teacher — a response common to victims of sexual harassment or assault.

“Many of the victims — both sexual assault and sexual harassment — become paralyzed in that moment,” the Garden of Hope Foundation’s Tu says. “When you are violated in such a way, you’re unable to react. This is how our body works,” she says.

Huang says that if the harasser is an acquaintance or someone in a position of authority, victims may not know how to respond because they feel uncomfortable and don’t want to make the situation more awkward.

“We need to understand that there are cases where the perpetrators use their power to silence the victims,” Tu says. “The power imbalance and the relationship between the two sides can stop the victims from seeking help or making the incident public.

Democratic Progressive Party legislator Yu Mei-nu (尤美女) says victims are more willing to report sexual harassment or assault committed by strangers.

“The problem lies in violence perpetrated by acquaintances,” Yu says, which is the most common form of sexual violence in Taiwan today.

Among all the documented sexual harassment cases from the 2016 report by the Gender Equality Committee of the Executive Yuan, about 30 percent came from acquaintances. That number rises to more than 80 percent for sexual assault.

Victims also fear that their family or friends may not believe them because the accusation is made against a personal acquaintance.

And since it is likely the victim will face their perpetrators again, many choose to endure for fear of repercussion, and to avoid social pressures.

Tu, who has worked for the Garden of Hope for more than two decades and has helped in the recovery of numerous victims of sexual assault and harassment, says it isn’t uncommon for a teacher to fail a student who has gone public with accusations of sexual harassment.

“Victims fear that people won’t believe them due to the reputation of the perpetrators,” Tu says.

TAIWAN’S #METOO MOVEMENT?

Perhaps the stereotypes of sexual harassment and a unfriendly reporting system explain why it is still hard for victims to find their voice nine months after the #MeToo movement began.

In late March, sports news anchor WaWa Chang (張旖旂) was attacked online after she accused sports critic Lee Yi-shen (李亦伸) and photographer Wu Chia-yu (吳嘉祐) of workplace sexual harassment.

“This is not only about speaking up. What comes after that? The support system is not enough,” Huang says.

Tu says that the #MeToo movement faces difficulties in countries that are socially conservative and where sex is not talked about openly.

“There are more people speaking up in America because it’s more open about this topic,” Tu says.

For a discussion on sexual harassment and assault to take place, the support system needs to be improved so that victims feel safe speaking up, Tu says. She adds that creating this environment requires gender equality education.

“Your instinct is often right: say no if you feel something’s wrong and avoid being in the same place with [the perpetrator],” Tu says. She adds that schools need to educate students to be aware when a teacher or fellow student acts inappropriately, and how to respond.

If sexual harassment or assault has already occurred, Tu says victims should keep as much evidence as possible, including text messages. Friends and family should encourage the victim to speak up.

For institutions handling sexual harassment cases — whether a gender equity education committee on campus or workplace or judicial authorities — better training needs to be implemented.

“People who are handling these cases need to be educated on what constitutes sexual violence. They also need to acknowledge the power relations between victims and their perpetrators,” Tu says.

Under the guidelines of the Gender Equity Education Act (性別平等教育法), students enrolled at compulsory educational institutions after 2004 learn about gender equality and gender diversity.

“But many who left school before 2004 have no idea what gender equality is,” Yu says.

Yu calls this group “gender blind” (性別盲), saying that even though there has been workplace and public sector training on gender equality, most of them are still unaware of the power imbalance in sexual violence.

“There’s a generation gap here,” Yu says. “When victims are coming forward to talk about their cases today, the people they’re facing — the people who are in power now — are those who are in their 50s or 60s, those who have never received gender equality education.”

To create a safe environment, education on gender equality is needed not only in schools but also in public sectors and companies.

“It takes public education for the whole society to prevent sexual violence,” Tu says.