#MeToo movement unearths heartbreaking reality of sexual assault in Hong Kong
Advocates for sexual violence victims say reluctance to speak up stems from expecting to be asked why they did not come forward sooner
Last month, 23-year-old Hong Kong hurdling champion Vera Lui Lai-yiu revealed she was sexually assaulted by a coach 10 years ago, bringing fresh attention locally to an issue grabbing headlines the world over.
Lui, 23, made the bold announcement on a Facebook post, describing an incident that took place when she was a secondary school pupil.
She included a photo of her holding a card with the words “#MeToo” and her initials “LLY” below, in support of a growing hashtag campaign against sexual harassment.
The news shook the city, prompting police to investigate the matter. The alleged perpetrator has been suspended by two of his employers.
Following Lui’s brave statement, Louisa Mak Ming-sze, crowned Miss Hong Kong in 2015, spoke up on social media about having been sexually assaulted in the past. Mak’s disclosure made her another high-profile local figure to lend her name and story to the global #MeToo movement.
After suggesting the incidents had happened more than once, the former beauty queen noted they had taken place on the mainland but the perpetrator was a Hongkonger.
Almost immediately, victim-shaming followed, with some shifting the blame on her and other alleged victims and questioning their motives and timing.
Linda Wong, executive director of RainLily, an NGO for sexual violence victims, says victims are often reluctant to speak up as they weigh the consequences of being asked why they did not come forward sooner.
Wong describes the deliberations as playing “a key factor when victims decide to disclose their trauma or not”. Yet she urges people to “never underestimate” what victims go through to confront those who harmed them.
“The pain is debilitating and even tougher to endure,” she says of victims’ ordeal. “Sometimes they may never fully heal.”
By providing immediate medical, counselling and legal support, RainLily has helped serve more than 3,000 victims of sexual violence since it was established in 2000.
“One in seven women in Hong Kong has experienced sexual violence,” Wong says.
To step up the fight against sexual harassment, more than 70 Hong Kong athletes, including cyclist Sarah Lee Wai-sze and swimmer Stephanie Au Hoi-shun, issued a joint statement calling on the government and sports officials to take concrete steps to protect athletes from sexual abuse.
They want the authorities to ensure the athletes’ safety, especially those who are young, and prevent similar incidents from happening again.
Their requests include investigating cases of sexual assault thoroughly; giving coaches and staff clear guidelines on their interactions with athletes, such as avoiding unnecessary physical contact and athletes being alone with coaches; encouraging athletes, especially juveniles, to actively seek help in the event of sexual assault; and providing counselling for those suspected of being victims of sexual abuse.
Ever since the young women brought the US-inspired “#Me Too” movement to Hong Kong, more people have felt encouraged to speak out against sexual harassment. RainLily says the number of calls it has received has increased significantly since the two women stepped forward.
“RainLily symbolises the resilience of a woman,” Wong says. “The violence done against her will not diminish her value and self-worth, and we are so proud of them for embodying power and hope.”
Last year, 4,051 cases were reported to the centre’s hotline service, either by victims of sexual violence or their family members. Since 2000, the number has increased by 7 per cent year-on-year.
RainLily says 80 per cent of perpetrators are known to the victim, meaning they can include family members, friends and acquaintances. This can make it even more difficult for victims to share their stories.
The predicament is especially grave for girls who are ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, according to a recent survey conducted by Rainlily and City University’s department of applied social sciences.
The survey involved 139 female students, aged 14 to 18, who belong to three South Asian groups: Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese. It found most girls from the groups had experienced gender-based violence and that they lacked adequate knowledge of the subject.
At the same time, the girls rarely sought help from professionals, with nearly 50 per cent choosing to keep silent.
The survey organisers believe the reluctance to speak up stems from a variety of factors, such as language barriers, a mistrust of authority, and a lack of cultural and religious sensitivity and insight among teachers and service workers.
“Minority girls on the one hand are handed down a certain level of traditional cultural practices and ideology, namely patriarchy and authoritarian values, but on the other hand they undergo a constant change process in which such values are held up against more progressive, gender-equitable perspectives,” Wong explains.
Apart from providing comprehensive legal and medical advice as well as round-the-clock support, RainLily is keen to spare survivors the need to recount their experience to multiple strangers over and over again.
“It’s time to stop the blame game, which I believe is the number one reason for delayed self-disclosure,” Wong says. “Instead of asking victims what they did to provoke the act or what they were wearing, it is time to start focusing on how we can give them the appropriate support in their quest for justice.”
Despite the prevalence of sexual assault, the vast majority of offenders face little to no consequences, Wong says, and that is due to statutes of limitation restricting the window of time in which victims may file charges.
In Hong Kong, cases reported to police entail investigation and taking statements. Physical and circumstantial tests are carried out as well.
And in sexual assault cases in which the alleged assault occurred within 72 hours of the report, a forensic examination is conducted.
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung stresses the importance of acting quickly, even as he acknowledges that doing so can be difficult for victims.
Luk explains that if scratches or bruises arise from an incident, “ DNA, bodily fluids as well as sperm will be left either on the victim’s body or clothing”.
“These things are the evidence we need to build a case.”
However, if more than 72 hours transpire since the alleged assault, evidence may be lost. Luk notes that “as time slips by, wounds will be healed, bodily fluids will be washed off and that is how evidence is lost”.
While a victim’s hesitation to relive the experience may be understandable, the barrister suggests it is best to speak about what happened.
“It doesn’t have to be with police,” he says. “As long as it is someone you trust, that can become what we call a rescind complaint, which can also be presented in court.”