Community has a big role to play in curbing molestation

Molestation cases are on the rise, and law enforcement alone may not be enough to fight it.

The number of molestation offences reported in the first nine months of this year has surged compared to the last two years, prompting concerns that more are exhibiting such criminal behaviour.

Police statistics last month showed 1,168 reported cases of molestation from January to September. Over the same period in 2016, this was 974 and in 2015, it was 978.

The latest figure of 1,168 was also a sharp rise from the 706 cases in the first half of this year.

Reports of incidents on public transport and in public entertainment outlets, which rose by 49 per cent and 24.6 per cent respectively, were flagged as areas of concern.

But they do not make up the majority of all incidents. Many more may be happening in everyday situations, beyond the purview of security staff, and out of range of surveillance cameras.

The community, therefore, has a part to play in avoiding normalising such behaviour, and preventing perpetrators from getting away with it.

First, friends and family of those who say they have been molested should not brush off reports.

Instead, they should help victims recognise inappropriate conduct, and avoid pinning the blame on them for causing the incident.

Angie (not her real name), now a retiree in her 60s, told The Straits Times she was molested twice by her husband's best friend: once at the airport and another, in her home. When she told her husband about it, he thought she was overreacting and simply laughed it off. "It's so difficult to explain yourself in such a situation," she said.

Second, bystanders should be vigilant against molestation too - they should avoid turning a blind eye, and support the victim, should he or she report an incident.

Besides patrols in public transport areas, the police have also been providing crime prevention advice via posters, videos and roadshows.

But who the victim is with can determine the action taken, said Mr Daniel Cheng, who has been working in the public entertainment industry for eight years.

He recalled seeing a girl getting scolded by her female friends for "making a big deal out of" a stranger touching her.

"They told her not to spoil their night, and she was pressured into not pursuing it," said the managing director of Get Juiced, a club in Clarke Quay.

Those molested by strangers may find themselves reluctant to make a report, and friends' and families' reactions affect this decision.

Without a nationwide study of people's experiences of molestation, it will remain difficult to pinpoint the underlying reasons for the uptick in offences.

Even though the rise in molestation cases could be due to more committing such crimes, experts have said it might also stem from a greater willingness to report offences.

This could be due to greater awareness of sexual crimes, and assurances that cases will be treated sensitively.

The authorities, for example, are looking to strengthen laws and court processes to reduce stress on victims.

But it is still too early for cheer as under-reporting remains a serious issue among sexual assault victims here and around the world.

Tough laws and heightened security may send a strong message that acts such as molestation are criminal, but the community's reactions are also a factor that could allow many perpetrators to continue to go scot-free. ST POSED PHOTO

A 2013 report on sexual offences in England and Wales found that only 15 per cent of women who said they were victims of the most serious sex crimes such as rape or attempted rape went to the police.

Those who experience sex crimes are even less likely to pursue the matter if perpetrators are known to them, in the experience of the Sexual Assault Care Centre of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Of the 236 sexual assault cases the centre saw in the first half of this year, more than 80 per cent were committed by someone known to the victim.

Of these, close to 40 per cent of perpetrators were acquaintances and 21 per cent, people at the workplace.

While the reported numbers are a cause for concern, a large-scale study could help shed more light on their prevalence, providing more evidence of the reasons behind it.

A survey on violence against women was done in 2009, polling more than 2,000 people, and this was followed by smaller studies in the years after.

Perhaps it is timely to take a deeper look at how things have changed, if at all, since then, so that more targeted measures may be taken to prevent sexual assault, including molestation.

Going by the flood of people stepping forward - from Hollywood and beyond - after the widespread acknowledgement of producer Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual misconduct, knowing that one's reports will be taken seriously can greatly empower victims.

Sustaining such a climate of discussion may be a longer-term solution to stopping molestation numbers from rising further.

Tough laws and heightened security may send a strong message that acts such as molestation are criminal, but the community's reactions are also a factor that could allow many perpetrators to continue to go scot-free.

It is up to each and every one of us to help create an environment where such crimes can no longer go under the radar.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Community has a big role to play in curbing molestation'. Print Edition | Subscribe