Welcome draft law on an important subject
By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-10-14 07:11

Heated debates started in late September when word spread that the Beijing municipal people's congress was revising the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women.

Some questions were raised on why it had taken the Beijing legislature about four years to come up with an amended draft for deliberation. The National People's Congress, the country's legislative body, adopted the revised law in August 2005, which went into effect on Dec 1 the same year.

Most of the points were focused on the clause: "Sexual harassment against women is forbidden". A key amendment in the revised law, the article makes it explicit that sexually harassing women is against the law. It also empowers women to seek police and/or legal actions against the perpetrators. Before the legislation, sexual harassment was at best considered a bad moral conduct.

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Despite making breakthroughs, the draft has left the onus on local legislatures to come up with legally binding regulations to implement the law in its entirety. That's what the debates were mostly focused on because people hold widely different views on different issues - from how to define sexual harassment and what to prove to how should the accused be prosecuted.

A lot of people say the draft regulation could still be premature and difficult to enforce because of the complex technicalities and legalese involved. A few even question why the regulation only protects women.

I recognize the difficulties that the proposed regulation would encounter once the local legislature adopts it and puts it into effect. The public and the law enforcement agencies have run into the same problem that faced the implementation of many of the laws that our country has adopted over the past 30 years. But I believe such a regulation is long overdue.

The Beijing legislature should be able to overcome the technicalities and adopt a regulation to ensure that the law is enforced, especially in cases in which women are fighting against sexual harassment.

The team that drafted the amendment has already taken the initial step of wading through technicalities to come up with a rather clear-cut definition. It says: "Any verbal language, writing, images, electronic messaging and physical acts that are of sexual nature and go against the will of women constitute sexual harassment against women."

But the amended draft should not be confined to emphasizing sexual behaviors that are unwanted and unwelcome by women. What the team needs to do is further clarify that these not only go against the will of the women, but also hamper their lives and their ability to function in workplaces, homes or educational institutions. Irrespective of whether a behavior is direct or implied, it can affect a woman's work or her studies. Such acts are harmful, coercive and sexually damaging.

Above all, the amended draft should include the behaviors and acts that can create a menacing, hostile or offensive environment in workplaces and educational institutions.

The term "sexual harassment" wasn't introduced in everyday terminology in China until the 1990s, even though it was present in society and hurt many women and their lives.

The Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center in Beijing, which operates a hotline to help women in need, once received a call from a 40-year-old woman. At the age of 18, she had gone with her aunt for a job interview at a factory where the latter used to work.

At the reception, a male employee forcibly embraced and kissed the 18-year-old, but she didn't know what to do. She did get the job, but her aunt, who had seen the incident, spread the word.

For 22 years, the woman lived in disgrace, with her family members despising her and later her husband sharing the tale of her "indecency" with his friends and colleagues, even though she hadn't lost her virginity till she was married. Even her daughter looked down upon her.

When she called the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center, she asked: Is it sexual harassment?

In China, where discrimination against women is rooted in its centuries-old history, that woman's sad saga is just one example of what women have to go through. Countless others suffer the same fate and are forced maintain silence over it.

Even today, people tend to blame women for something they could not do (such as putting up a resistance), or for what how they look and what they wear.

Worse, most of the women who have lodged complaints with women's federations and the Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center say most of the sexual offenders in workplaces are their superiors or bosses.

Tradition and history, coupled sometimes with intense and intimate relationships in workplaces, often make sexual harassment complex cases against which it is difficult to collect evidence. This is true more about cases in which the acts take place in private.

So even after the amended regulation comes into effect, women and women's federations entrusted to help victims get justice will have to overcome a lot of hurdles to prove their charges in court.

Whatever the hurdles, a legally binding regulation - with clear-cut and enforceable clauses - is the first step toward further protecting the rights and interests of women.