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Honolulu Star-Advertiser: New year hope: Fewer victims of sex assault, harassment

By Serena Del Mundo and Elizabeth Fujiwara

With 2019 here, it’s time to reflect on the past year and work to improve this year. We’d like to see the state of Hawaii resolve that paradise is no place for sexual harassment or assault.

The issue of sexual harassment was in the spotlight during the last legislative session, when former state House Speaker Rep. Joe Souki admitted to the state Ethics Commission that he touched and kissed “more than one woman in ways that were inappropriate and unwelcome” and made sexual comments, including comments on physical appearance, to more than one woman. Souki was forced to quit.

This was just one example of sexual harassment at the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed charges of sexual harassment in 93 cases in 2017. This was from an overall total of 294 charges — or nearly a third of the agency’s total filed in Hawaii.

However, in 2016, the EEOC also reported that about 75 percent of sexual harassment cases go unreported. Even more distressing: the EEOC estimates anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women experience sexual harassment. Industries that are male-dominated, service industries and women in low-wage positions all have higher instances of sexual harassment, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

Women in low-paid service jobs in Waikiki seem to demonstrate the findings of the law center.

The EEOC took action against numerous Waikiki bars for their hostile work environments, and one of the issues fought for by the hotel workers in their recent 51-day strike were policies to better protect service staff from sexual harassment from hotel customers.

According to the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, 601 cases of rape were reported statewide in 2016, making up 17.4 percent of the violent crimes reported for the year.

But like sexual harassment, many rape cases go unreported. A National Institute of Justice report found that only 36 percent of rapes, 34 percent of attempted rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults were reported in a study that looked at statistics from 1992 to 2000.

The NIJ study also found the reasons for not reporting rape or sexual assault were self-blame or guilt; shame, embarrassment, or the desire to keep the assault a private matter; humiliation or fear of the perpetrator or other individual’s perceptions; fear of not being believed or of being accused of playing a role in the crime, and lack of trust in the criminal justice system.

Those reasons could also be why so few sexual harassment cases are reported.

It’s important that with this new year, the state understand that sexual harassment and rape cases are complex matters. Victims need to be safe, feel safe and be taken seriously. Reports of the backlog of rape kits yet to be processed by the Honolulu Police Department, some of them older than the six-year statute of limitations for rape, does not serve the victims or the justice they seek.

The U.S. Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos, is proposing changes to the policies regarding sexual harassment. Under DeVos’ proposal, sexual harassment would not be reportable unless it’s so severe and pervasive that it “denies” a student’s access to education — i.e., the student has been forced to drop out of a class or out of school altogether.

We urge Hawaii to ensure that current federal Title IX guarantees are also state guarantees.

While most of the exposure Title IX receives is through high school and college sports, such as the recent class-action lawsuit involving Campbell High School’s female student athletes, Title IX also ensures girls and women have procedures in place and rights when dealing with sexual harassment and sexual assault issues in any school that receives federal funding.

Our sincere hope is that in the coming year, a real, meaningful change for the better can be made and there will be fewer victims of sexual harassment and assault.


AAUW Honolulu member Serena Del Mundo and women’s rights attorney Elizabeth Fujiwara penned this opinion piece about sexual harassment and assault in Hawaii. Read it here or if you aren’t a subscriber to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, read it below.

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