Categorised | Letters to the Editor

Closed Penan rape cases an injustice

TOMORROW, 25 Nov 2009, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. We join advocates around the world in calling attention to the systematic violations of women’s rights, particularly through crimes of sexual violence.

In Malaysia, the rapes of Penan women and children in Sarawak serves as a horrific reminder of the severity of the crisis of escalating rates of violence against women, and the persistent inadequacies of our criminal justice system in securing relief for survivors of sexual crimes.

Since the mid-1980s, laws related to rape have been amended to bring justice to survivors of rape. However, the recent statement from police, that investigations on the rapes of Penan women are now closed, exposes the stark reality of how difficult it is to access justice from the criminal justice system. This is more so for marginalised communities.

Shadowy interior of a Penan home (Pics courtesy of Sofiyah Israa @ Flickr)

While there are difficulties in bringing criminal cases to trial, cases of rape are particularly pronounced. According to the Bukit Aman police headquarters, approximately less than 15% of reported sexual crimes in 2008 were brought to trial.

The Women’s Centre for Change recently published their 2005 study Seeking Justice for Vicitms of Sexual Crime, which examined 439 cases between 2000 and 2004 in subordinate courts in Penang. The study found that attitudinal and structural factors stack the odds against victims every step of the way in the courts: first, in getting a case to trial; second, in getting a hearing free of stereotypical prejudices; and finally, in getting a conviction.

It showed, among other things, that entrenched patriarchal views within the criminal justice system negatively affect the outcome of rape trials; for instance, when the credibility of the victim is questioned. Underpinning this is the false assumption that women lie about sexual assault and cannot be trusted. Many studies have shown, however, that very few rape cases are falsely reported.

How accessible is the justice system to Penan rape survivors, literally in terms of distance from police stations and courthouses, and culturally in terms of the historical mistrust of authorities and language barriers? If rape survivors in urban cities such as Penang and Kuala Lumpur face daunting obstacles in seeing through their cases, what more indigenous women located in the margins of power centres and caught up in corporate capitalist and state interests in so-called development?

That police investigations have been closed without any perpetrators being charged does not mean these crimes have not been committed. Rather it is an indictment of the criminal justice system that has failed to protect and uphold the rights of the most vulnerable. Until steps are taken, such as better interagency cooperation, more allocation of resources, and sensitivity training for judiciary and prosecutors, the denial of justice to rape survivors is doomed to continue.

What now for Malaysians who believe in justice, equality, and the need to end violence against women?

All Women’s Action Society (Awam)
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)

24 Nov 2009

See also: Making Sarawak’s interior safer
Outraged by inaction over plight of Orang Asal

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One Response to “Closed Penan rape cases an injustice”

  1. Kamal says:

    The alleged rape of Penan women and children was investigated and documented by an investigative team set up by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. It took a year of pestering from NGOs and opposition leaders before the ministry disclosed the findings of the report. And didn’t the findings of the report substantiate the allegations?

    With these sorts of documentation and accusations from an entire community of rape against their women and children I would beg to differ; this is not the result of design by a patriarchal society. Perhaps lack of interest from other NGOs or from members of the public reflects the patriarchal society. Though I would think this is because we are all trapped in our own warped sense of ethnic politics.

    This is an issue that affects all of us. It has all the ingredients that should bond us together from Parent Teachers Associations to political bodies; we should all be upset. If the documentation in the report is accurate, what it suggests is that for a Penan child, taking the available transportation from their villages in the interior to school is a risk; they can get raped. Every parent should feel the pain and hopelessness the Penan parents feel not knowing what will happen to their children. Why have we not heard more sustained campaign on getting the authorities to do something, especially now that we are told the investigations have been closed? Why have other organisations not said anything? Especially local and international organisations working to promoted the rights of children. Are Penan children not enough of an interest to these organisations or perhaps because it is only their words? But a ministry fact-finding mission appears to substantiate their claims – at least to document their claims. Shouldn’t there also be a push to ensure safety for children taking the trip to school regardless of where they are? The government encourages and has more or less made primary level schooling compulsory; should they make it their responsibility to ensure the safety of children going to school? At least monitor and regulate those involved?

    There have been NGOs advocating indigenous rights that have come out strongly in support of the Penan and this is to be expected. But, what about other groups, for example academicians who do fieldwork among indigenous communities (and the Penan specifically), where are their voice? And what about those involved in timber businesses, are they not upset that in their pursuit of an honest buck that these allegations have [been made]? Fair enough that the companies involved say it is not them, of course but at a human level have we lost all compassion to address their plight? Don’t they care at all to find a solution to end the risk their business may pose to interior communities? Aren’t people the whole point to transparency and good governance?

    Now especially, as the international community is calling on the industry to promote responsible and ethical practices in their trade. I am sure consumers and interest groups in Europe and elsewhere are interested in following the outcomes of the Penan allegations of rape and of course other issues that the Penan continue to face such as claims that their land are being encroached upon. I would imagine that these issues are tied to their concerns on whether the logs they buy from us are from legal sources. And so where are their voices (producers, manufacturers and consumers — both local and international)? Of course the story was made public in the first place by a European-based NGO that monitors the plight of the Penan and advocated for their rights.

    Maybe there are a lot of voices clamoring for action to be taken but these voices remain on the internet. There was very good news coverage of the issue since the report emerged (particularly in The Star newspaper) until recently when the investigation ended. Now it seems, only Malaysiakini and The Nut Graph appear to be paying attention to this issue. It is sad not to see much in terms of editorials or opinion articles in the print media on the subject.

    For this, I respect and admire Awam, WAO and WCC for their persistence in reminding us that the Penan claims of rapes have yet to be adequately addressed by the authorities.

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