June 23rd, 2014

Foster climate of respect for young people

By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, AWARE

The recent conviction of Eisen Teo and ongoing discussion of the National University of Singapore’s termination of Tey Tsun Hang raise important issues about the appropriate conduct of professional and academic mentors toward young people under their care and influence.

studentsTeachers and other authority figures occupy positions of power which can be misused.  Even where the young people concerned are not technically minors, the power imbalance in the teaching or mentorship dynamic can enable exploitative and abusive behaviour.

Organisations which have contact with students and young people should institute robust policies about the standards expected of their staff.  This should include clear channels for complaints and documented procedures for handling them.

Our experience of advising organisations dealing with workplace sexual harassment suggests that policies must go beyond paper guidelines.  Regular training helps make all workers aware of the expectations they must meet, creating a zero tolerance environment for abusive behaviour.

This goes beyond simply avoiding direct sexual activity, to encouraging a climate of respect.

For instance, when co-workers joke about seeing students and young people connected with their organisation as targets for sexual activity, this may unwittingly legitimise and enable predatory colleagues.

Sex education in schools can also play a part, by helping students to understand and value the role of free and informed consent to sexual activity.  Minors should be taught that they are not always obliged to defer to authority figures, especially when it comes to setting and respecting personal boundaries.

In our regular interactions with young people, adults need to demonstrate that any concerns they raise – including about authority figures – will be taken seriously.

School counselors and anyone else caring for young people should respect their rights to privacy, confidentiality and the autonomy to make their own choices. This will make it easier for victims of sexual exploitation to report behaviour that makes them uncomfortable and to receive the support that they need.

We can also work to foster an atmosphere of openness and trust at home, where minors and young people can confide in parents and caregivers without fearing judgmental responses.

If children sense that any hint of sexual feelings or activity on their part will draw condemnation, suspicion or blame, they are less likely to share information which could alert parents and caregivers to situations of grooming, and enable them to provide assistance.

This letter was first published in the Straits Times Forum on 22 June 2014.

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