Over half of Hong Kong students are unaware of their university’s anti-sexual harassment policy, an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) study has found.

In an online poll of 14,442 students across nine universities, 55.6 per cent said that they did not know whether their university had an anti-sexual harassment policy, while 41.4 per cent said that they were aware of such a policy, and three per cent said that it did not exist. When asked whether the student had read their university’s anti-sexual harassment policy, 62.1 per cent said no, and 37.9 per cent said yes.

EOC sexual harassment
Kitty Lam (far-left), Dr. Ferrick Chu (second-left), Dr. Rizwan Ullah (middle), Chong Yiu-kong (second-right), James Chan (far-right). Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The EOC also found that among students who said they were sexually harassed:

  • 2.5 per cent of them said they lodged complaints with their university;
  • 45 per cent said that they avoided contact with the perpetrator(s) after they were harassed, representing the most common response;
  • Whilst 30 per cent said they did not take any action. When asked why the student did not report their assault, the most cited response was that the incident was not serious, at 58.9 per cent, while a further 36.2 per cent said that the matter had been resolved on its own.

The survey “Break the Silence: Territory-Wide Study on Sexual Harassment of University Students in Hong Kong” had an overall response rate of 14.3 per cent of the issued sample, with the weighting of data based on the male and female distribution of the participating universities’ student populations. Additionally, the EOC conducted 28 in-depth interviews from May to June and a focus group discussion with 13 representatives in June last year.

All eight public universities took part in the study. The Open University of Hong Kong was the only self-funded institution to participate.

‘Not effective’

“The anti-sexual harassment policy in many universities is not effective,” Chong Yiu-kong, deputy convenor of the working group on anti-sexual harassment campaign, told HKFP.

“I think a zero tolerance policy is very important but this has to be supported by resources. When you say that you have the determination to handle the problem but don’t put much resources into it then it is very difficult to implement the policy.”

Chong Yiu-kong and Dr. Rizwan Ullah
Chong Yiu-kong (left) and Dr. Rizwan Ullah (right). Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

A female undergraduate said in an interview with the EOC that, after a presentation in class, her male professor told her: “If you show more skin next time, maybe I will give you a higher mark.”

Another female postgraduate student said that she had to drop out of the first year of her PhD because she could not handle the harassment from her professor any longer. She added that after she lodged a complaint with the university, no disciplinary action was taken. “In fact, he was given a promotion later on,” she said.

Other concerns raised in the interviews included inadequate understanding of sexual consent among university students, uncomfortable experiences relating to alcohol, unwanted physical contact, and inappropriate activities during first-year orientations.

The EOC recommended that universities implement and commit to a victim-centric reporting mechanism in response to sexual harassment, along with comprehensive sex education to raise awareness about consent and mutual respect as a preventative measure.

“We need to increase awareness for students in tertiary education,” Dr Rizwan Ullah, deputy convenor of the Policy, Research & Training Committee, said. “The existing sex education is more about what sex is, what contraception a person should take, those sorts of things they mention. But in things that lead to some sort of grey areas or fall under harassment, kids would not know.”

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.