Half the Hong Kong students in a recent survey said they have been sexually harassed, the Equal Opportunities Commission reported yesterday, criticising the anti-harassment law as a "paper tiger" because it's seldom wielded.
The EOC survey, conducted in 2011, found that 3,000 of 6,000 students interviewed had experienced harassment. Its definition of sexual harassment ranges from seeing objectionable graffiti to suggestive name-calling to actual physical assault.
The Hong Kong findings are part of a global trend, with surveys around the world showing sexual harassment in schools to be a growing phenomenon.
Around 50 per cent of 3,400 Swedish primary schoolers had experienced offensive sexual name-calling, according to a 2002 survey by the Swedish National Agency for Education. The American Association of University Women has found that 89 per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys experienced sexual harassment in secondary school.
The Hong Kong survey canvassed students from Primary Four to university level on what they consider to be sexual harassment and whether they have experienced it. The youngest pupil to report being sexually harassed was 10 years old. The largest grouping of cases was in the secondary-school age group.
Before 2008, Hong Kong's Sexual Harassment Ordinance defined the offence as actions such as touching and assault. That year the government amended the definition to include hostile environments created by, for example, verbal harassment - similar to the British and Australian definitions.
But no concrete action has been taken to educate the public or equip schools to deal with the problem, said Dr John Tse Wing-ling, convenor of the commission's policy and research committee. "Right now, it's just a paper-tiger ordinance," he said. "What is worrying is that many of the students accept sexual harassment as part of the school culture or part of 'growing up'."
Acceptance of sexual harassment increases with age, from a low of 11 per cent among children to 27 per cent among teenagers and 44 per cent among adults.
The EOC received 114 complaints about sexual harassment last year - the most in five years - but the number is only the tip of a huge iceberg, said Dr Ferrick Chu Chung-man, the commission's head of policy and research.