Women in Southeast Asia’s conservation space face culture of harassment

Women and members of the LGBTQ+ community say harassment remains widespread, enforcement on the ground is lacking, and the culture in many conservation organisations discourages speaking out.

While victims of harassment say they’re often left to come up their own coping measures, experts call for women-to-women mentorship, participation of male allies, and deeper transformational change in the conservation sector. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

During a 2020 field trip to a rural area in Vietnam, Hoa (not her real name), then working for a conservation-focused nonprofit, visited local authorities to discuss forest management. Vietnamese law requires local authorities to approve foreign-funded projects, so these types of informal meetings are crucial to a project’s success.

Hoa was accompanied by three male colleagues, but during the event, she recalls, she was singled out to propose a toast with the village leader. He put his arm around her shoulder, which she said made her feel uncomfortable. Despite her unease, she had to conceal her discomfort and drink with him.

To her dismay, Hoa noticed that he behaved similarly toward other female colleagues from the region, who appeared accustomed to such behaviour. None of her colleagues offered to drink on her behalf, which is often a gesture of support for female colleagues in such situations.

Later on, her three male colleagues, who were a dozen years her senior, made her even more uncomfortable. She recalls frightening moments when she was taking a shower in a shabby, open-air bathroom, while they made jokes outside. Some of the jokes included comments like, “Do you feel lonely bathing inside all by yourself?”

“It is sickening to just recall the incident,” Hoa says.

Hoa’s visit took place the same year that a law making workplace sexual harassment illegal came into effect in Vietnam. But Hoa remained silent, believing her workplace would be indifferent to the issue.

Conservation workers from around Southeast Asia echo Hoa’s sentiments. Despite existing laws against sexual harassment that recognise the rights of victims to seek redress, law enforcement remains far from effective on the ground. Women in the male-dominated conservation sector say they often stay silent in order to continue working. Limited awareness of this issue contributes to the persistence of sexual harassment.

‘I did not know I was on the receiving end of sexual harassment until later…’

Once back at the office in Hanoi, Hoa confided to several female colleagues about the incident, but they seemed nonchalant, she says.

“They told me that male colleagues did not have any bad intentions, and that it is normal for colleagues to tease each other,” Hoa says. “They told me to just focus on my job.”

One can be due to the cultural conditioning of not speaking up in an environment where there is no psychological safety. The Asian work setting [tends] to be more hierarchical than egalitarian and where patriarchy reigns.

Asma Abdullah, researcher, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

Hoa now works in an international company, where there’s clear guidance, training and a reporting mechanism in the event of sexual harassment. Her former workplace still has none of those.

Bianca (not her real name) works closely with Indigenous communities in the Philippines. Though an Anti-Sexual Harassment Act was put in place in 1995, she says she frequently experiences uninvited sexual jokes. These, she says, can come in the middle of trainings or serious discussions at work, and also in informal roundtables with male participants.

“Suddenly, someone might ask why I am single, then they tried to pair me up with a single man in the communities,” says Bianca, who is in her mid-30s. “I feel embarrassed. Single men do not get this question”.

“Most challenging is when you are a workshop leader. In front of community leaders, you need to find a way not to violate their dignity while keeping your own,” she says.

Bianca says she’s also observed inappropriate behaviour toward her female colleagues, who she says don’t necessarily associate such actions with sexual harassment.

“I grew up in an environment where I understood that some physical touches are wrong. Males in my family respect my boundaries,” Bianca says. “But others might grow up in different environments.”

Bianca says she tries not to impose meaning on those behaviours by reporting the perpetrators or telling colleagues that she believes they’ve been harassed. But she says she does take notice and makes sure not to leave these women alone with the perpetrators.

When mentoring women, she says, she tries to put forward a simple definition of harassment: any action that makes a person feel uncomfortable because of their sex or gender, especially women or members of LGBTQ+ communities.

“Sometimes we cannot prove sexual harassment, but we can feel the discomfort,” Bianca says. “For example, when we shake hands with male partners, the way some do so may make you very uncomfortable. You might feel goosebumps. In this situation, you should not be alone with the person. I advise women not to second-guess themselves.”

Lack of awareness is common even among highly educated women. After a government career in Malaysia, Rufia (not her real name) moved to the nonprofit sector in her 40s. There, her workplace was mostly female and she received many trainings, including those related to sexual harassment. Only then, she says, did she realise that she’d been sexually harassed many times in her previous job, both as a junior staff member and as a top manager.

“I faced sexual harassment from the beginning to the end of my government career, from rank and file to higher management,” Rufia says.

In around 2005, Rufia recalls, she was in the office when her superior, a significantly older man who was married with children, sent her a phone message instructing her to check an email he’d just sent.

It turned out to be a pornographic video.

Rufia says she pretended nothing was going on, and nothing happened afterward. “I still had to work with this guy on a daily basis,” she says.

More importantly, lacking training, Rufia at the time didn’t identify his behaviour as sexual harassment. “I did not know I was on the receiving end of sexual harassment until later.”

Silence is a norm

Even when harassment is clearly identified, speaking up against harassers isn’t only hard, but sometimes impractical or even impossible.

Bianca says women have been so inured to sexual innuendos that they sometimes even laugh back at those jokes. Yet this kind of coping mechanism comes “at the expense of women’s self-esteem,” she says. Single and young women are particularly vulnerable.

“Nobody speaks out, including myself,” she says. “We have to choose our own battles. We do not always have the energy and the mental space to deal with that.”

In her area of work, most community leaders are men. Choosing to confront harassers would mean failure to defer to them.

“Deference to them is needed, if not, I would be unable to come back and work with them,” Bianca says.

Anxiety about causing tension in the organisation is also a common concern.

“The NGO circle is so small. Reporting and complaining would give others the impression that I am a difficult person to work with,” Hoa says.

Despite all that happened, Rufia says she doesn’t hold grudges and didn’t let any incidents ruin professional relationships, let alone relations with the top management.

“Culturally, there seemed to be no problem for men to be quite suggestive,” she says.

Malaysia’s 2022 Anti-Sexual Harassment Act fails to hold employers accountable for their employees’ or clients’ conduct while on the job. Furthermore, there’s no prohibition against retaliation aimed at the complainant or whistleblower.

“Reporting this might bring tensions in the organisation,” Rufia says.

Asma Abdullah, an intercultural specialist based in Kuala Lumpur who’s done research on speaking up in the Asian corporate context, says that while society imposes expectations that victims of sexual harassment be brave enough to speak up, many victims feel reluctant to do so for a variety of reasons.

“One can be due to the cultural conditioning of not speaking up in an environment where there is no psychological safety. The Asian work setting [tends] to be more hierarchical than egalitarian and where patriarchy reigns,” Abdullah says.

Arimbi Heroepoetri, a lawyer based in Jakarta who has experience working with women and environmental issues, says that even though Indonesian law provides a legal basis to categorise an act as sexual harassment, the process of reporting is still fraught with challenges.

“If the victims report the case to the police, the immediate response from the police is to reconcile between the perpetrators and the victims,” she says.

Kuros (not his real name), a Bruneian environmental advocate, says members of the LGBTQ+ communities are particularly reluctant to report incidents of sexual harassment.

“Perhaps we’re already put in the marginalised community and given a bad reputation of “sexual deviants,’” Kuros says. “We wouldn’t want to expose some of our communities out, or else it be proving the false claim about the LGBTQIA to be true. This would put us more in the margins.”

Female mentors and male allies needed

Absent effective application of formal measures against harassment, conservation workers say they’ve had to come up with their own strategies.

Rufia recommends reporting if sexual harassment is persistent, but brushing it off until then.

“That’s about how you react. The ball is in your court. They just push the boundary to see how far they can go. But I am firm and clear about my boundary,” she says.

Bianca says she advises female colleagues to mentally prepare themselves for the risks of sexual harassment, while reminding them that it isn’t their fault and that sexual harassment isn’t determined by what they wear or how they act. In her work, she says, she also often seeks to befriend wives of community leaders so that they “see me as one of us.”

“I make sure that I am not the only woman in the group when meeting with male community leaders,” Bianca says.

However, she acknowledges that this fails to address the root of the issue. “I would ask myself: why should we put the burden on women to protect themselves?” she says.

Sheherazade, co-founder of PROGRES, an NGO working on overlooked species and based on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, says women-to-women mentorship in the conservation sector is crucial.

“Empowered women mentorship networks can collectively advocate for better safety and protection for women in the field, and hold organisations/perpetrators accountable,” says Sheherazade, who is currently studying for a Ph.D. in environmental sciences and policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, Sheherazade says mentorship alone isn’t a panacea, because the problem is systemic and rooted in a deeply patriarchal society and lack of representation in the sector. Male colleagues, she says, especially those in positions of authority, can step up by creating both formal and informal social norms that hold other men accountable.

Abdullah, the intercultural specialist, agrees that women shouldn’t be left to face these challenges alone. “I think women’s issues have to be addressed in a context which include men,” she says. “Women can only be empowered if there are able to enroll men who can speak for them initially.”

Sheherazade agrees that sexual harassment isn’t a problem to be addressed by women alone, but nor is it one that can be solved by men acting as “saviours of women,” she says. It’s collective work, she says: “It requires transformative change in conservation sectors.”

This, she says, means that donors have a responsibility to ensure that the organisations they support have safeguarding policies in place and provide training for all of their staff and partners to “collectively create a safe and inclusive environment at work.”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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