By CECILIA CHOW
A COURT specialising in dealing with sexual discrimination and sexual harassment cases will be set up in Hongkong at the District Court level under the draft Sex Discrimination Bill, according to Susie Ho Shuk-yee, Principal Assistant Secretary for Home Affairs.
To supervise the implementation of the bill, a statutory Equal Opportunities Commission will also be established.
“The public can appeal to the Court directly in the form of civil action to seek compensation for being sexually discriminated and harassed,” said Ms Ho.
To help the aggrieved parties, the Court will have a discretion to permit people not to address the case in person.
“If they lose the case, the Court is entitled to exempt the litigants from any court fee,” Susie Ho said.
“By appealing to the Court, the victims have full rights to claim damages,” she added, “the Court can also issue an injunction to restrain the offenders from doing so any more.”
Apart from appealing to the Court, the aggrieved parties can also choose to complain to the Equal Opportunities Commission.
“The Commission will investigate the case. If the complaint is reasonable, the parties concerned have to attend a compulsory conference to discuss the matter,” she said.
“If conciliation fails, the Commission will pass the case to the Court,” she said, adding that the Commission would offer assistance to the victims, such as helping the victims to address the Court.
The Equal Opportunities Commission will comprise four to 16 members who are appointed by the Governor. The chairperson will be full time engaged in the commission.
The general work of the Commission is to initiate formal investigations, check the documents and policies of the companies concerned, issue a Code of Practice and endeavour to settle matters by conciliation.
Ms Ho said that enforcement notices would be issued if necessary. If these companies still failed to abide by the law, the Commission would approach the Court for an injunction.
“The Commission will issue a public report with regard to formal investigations. It is a kind of public pressure on the offender,” she added.
According to Shirley Hung Suet- lin, the external vice-chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Feminism, the bill was a great improvement yet the coverage was not extensive enough.
“Age discrimination against women is a serious problem but this kind of protection is not included,” said Ms Hung, adding that women over 30 could hardly find a new job.
According to Rose Wu Lo-sai, Supervisor of Hong Kong Women’s Christian Council, the bill had not mentioned the right of those women who suffered sexual violence and family violence.
“The exemption from the bill for indigenous villagers in rural communities is totally groundless. Many traditional practices are designed to sexually discriminate against women, but the government dare not touch this area,” Ms Wu said.
However, Ms Ho denied any allegation that the difficulties faced by women over 30 in finding a job was the result of sex discrimination. It was due much more to the changing of economic pattern in Hongkong.
“Women who failed to adapt to this change will find themselves jobless,” she explained.
“The Commission should stand on the side of the victim with a view to protecting their rights,” said Winnie Tam Pik-yan, Executive Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
“Our survey of sexual harassment conducted between September and October this year indicated that 86 per cent of the interviewees faced this problem in their working places in the past two years,” Winnie Tam said.
Susie Ho added that the victims could complain to the Commission or the special Court. In case the employers could not provide a good reason for what they did, an injunction would be issue.
“The enforcement notice and injunction are nothing but a passive means to protect those discriminated women,” Winnie said, “Since the offenders have already committed sexually harassment, they should be punished.”
To implement the bill and promote equality between sexes, public education is of vital importance.
“Through public education, women will be more aware of their rights and know how to protect themselves,” Ms Hung said.
“Governor’s policy speech also said that the government would assign a lump sum to promote human rights education in the coming years,” she said.
With this money, the Commission can develop plans to promote sex equality and conduct research into gender-related issues.
During this period, the government would still continue to listen to different views from all walks of life, to fine- tune the proposal to best fit society.