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Sexual harassment: A growing social problem
Updated: 2005-05-20 10:23

Sexual harassment is a growing social problem in China. Experts point out that the sexual harassment of women is directly related to the country's social and cultural structures.

Lei Nan, the female plaintiff in Beijing's first sexual harassment lawsuit, answers a reporter's questions June 30, 2003. [newsphoto/file]
The rising number of cases shows that women still occupy a lower position in society, and are therefore more vulnerable to exploitation and bullying by men.

A considerable number of women have been sexually harassed at some point and to varying degrees, from emotional trauma to personal injury.

Typical emotional responses observed of victims include anger, fear, anxiety, low self-esteem, guilt, depression, embarrassment, humiliation, fatigue, nausea, headache, and weight gain or loss.

One or a combination of these reactions can and do adversely affect victims' personal lives and work.

According to Wu Changzhen, a professor with China University of Political Science and Law, sexual harassment incidents often occur in spring and summer when women are less covered up.

Further, in the warmer months, people tend to do more outdoor activities. Some men will therefore prey on women and try to make physical contact with them.

Harassment can take different forms, from unnecessary touching or rubbing to blatant demands for sexual favors.

Crowded buses, subway trains and markets are obvious places where physical harassment typically occurs. But, the workplace is also fertile ground for sexual harassment.

Twenty-six-year-old Liu Shasha is a saleswoman with an insurance company. She recalls an incident where she was asked to submit a work report.

While she was in her boss's office submitting her report, he forced himself on her by hugging her. Humiliated, she left his office in tears.

Women aged between 15 and 30 are prime targets of sexual harassment. In the case of career women, offenders typically abuse their authority of office, combining threats of discharge or defamation with inducements of promotions and pay rises, in a bid to force female subordinates to submit to their advances.

Working environments have become increasingly unsafe for women, and this is contributing to a worsening social problem in the country.

More often than not, victims suffer in silence, either because they choose to or because there is no avenue of legal redress. The existing laws in China do not clearly define the differences between sexual harassment and sexual crimes. There is therefore no provision that explicitly states what sexual harassment is and when an act of harassment amounts to a crime.

In addition, evidence is generally difficult to gather in sexual harassment cases. Moreover, there is a prevailing prejudice that points the finger at the woman in the sense that it was she who encouraged the harassment. These obstacles have made it tremendously hard for women to safeguard their legal rights and interests.

Wang Fengxiang, a lawyer with Zhengyida Law Firm in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, said that although the number of sexual harassment incidents has risen consistently over the years, very few women have initiated legal proceedings against their offenders.

According to Wang, even if victims have been able to gather sufficient evidence against their offenders, whether through audio or video footage recorded secretly, such evidence has been deemed against legal procedure and thrown out of court.

Now, however, there might be hope for victims on the horizon. Sexual harassment has been included in the revised draft of the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests. The draft, which will be submitted this June to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress for examination and approval, proposes that those who sexually harass women, and if their behavior amounts to a violation of the law, will bear criminal responsibility. Offenders who are found not to have broken the law will be liable to administrative sanction by the public security agency. Further, offenders whose actions cause their victims to suffer emotional or physical damage will bear civil liability.

Wang suggests that the revised law should also specify the burden of proof in sexual harassment cases. He said that both the victim and accused offender should share the burden. Accused offenders ought to be made to produce evidence proving their innocence.

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