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Making people disappear

(© Piotr Kozikowski/Dreamstime)

WHEN I was media officer at a local feminist organisation, the Malaysian police claimed in their press statements to have solved 80% of crimes against women in 2005. That these figures were greeted with near-universal derision by activists working on women’s human rights would not, I wager, be a surprise to many.

Further reports suggest that “solved” was defined as the police having identified the perpetrators. It does not necessarily mean these perpetrators were actually charged and convicted by the courts.

A year later, similar claims were repeated. In response, the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang issued a letter quoting its study, which found that out of nearly 300 cases of sexual crimes contested in court, only 4% resulted in a conviction.

This is a country that once classified the Air Pollutant Index under the Official Secrets Act during times of severe haze. It is little surprise that official statistics on sexual crimes are couched in a way that frames the authorities in the best light possible. What this emphatically demonstrates, however, is that attitudes towards violence against women at the state level mirror values at the community level. Keep it as quiet as you can, save face first.

(© Jose Antonio Sánchez Reyes/Dreamstime)
It is now 2008. Malaysia has gone through long-delayed amendments to laws related to rape in the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. We had an election during which the Women’s Candidacy Initiative actively campaigned against  Members of Parliament (MPs) who made derogatory remarks against women in Parliament. And yet I still burn with anger and pain when I read responses by the authorities to allegations of sexual assault committed against Penan women and girls.

Dissecting statements

There has rightly been outrage by many on this issue. Much has been written and said, and there are currently two separate task forces set up. However, not enough attention has been paid to statements made by the Sarawak state government and police when the allegations first surfaced.

The Police Commissioner insisted that a police report had to be made, despite provisions in the Child Act 2001 that empowers the police to take proactive action upon suspicions of child sexual abuse. A disproportionate number of the victims, it should be recalled, were girls below the age of 18.

Datuk Patinggi Alfred Jabu Numpang, a deputy chief minister, initially rubbished the allegations, only to seemingly experience a change of heart: Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen claimed to have received a letter from him strongly recommending a thorough investigation by the police. However, Jabu then proceeded to tick off a Sarawakian blogger who was calling for essentially the same action.

Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri George Chan, in stressing the need for “very firm evidence”, said it was because it could portray a very bad national image.

Unbelievable. One would think that when faced with reports of systematic rapes committed over a decade-long period, the human reaction would be one of sympathy and anger at the pain so many women must have gone through. But no. We might as well be living in an era when violence against women, especially domestic violence, was seen not as a crime but a private matter.

Gender-based violence

(© Dez Pain/
The reality for many women survivors of violence is one of the impossibility of justice. It is impossible to bring perpetrators of violence to account for their actions due to gaps in the law. Even where laws criminalising forms of violence against women exist, they remain ineffective because of a social and political environment that makes it impossible for women to gain access to justice.

We live in an environment rife with apathy and a culture of impunity towards violence against women. Sections of the population still view these violations of women’s human rights as unimportant. Or, at best, they are seen as shameful incidents to be covered up to preserve the family honour.

Within the affected Penan communities, survivors of rape are stigmatised and pressured into marrying their rapists. Nationally, years of education by women’s organisations seem to be for naught, as victim-blaming is still deeply entrenched in public discourse. In any other crime, the focus would be on the actions of the perpetrator rather than the victim, but not for violence against women such as rape.

It is tempting to suggest that women’s groups draft generic letters to be signed and sent off at will. Defenders of women’s rights have to respond repeatedly to exhortations that women should cover up so as not to arouse men to rape them. This is despite numerous studies that show that modesty, or lack thereof, is a negligible factor at best. Just earlier this year, claims were made that school uniforms invite sexual assault.

(© Davor Ratkovic/Dreamstime)
And the culture of victim blaming is not the only deterrent to women seeking reparations for the violations they have suffered. Well-known abuses of power by those tasked to protect us all should also give women pause. Recently a column in Malaysiakini highlighted two rape cases where the accused rapists were police officers.

In the case of the sexual abuse of Penan women, their situation is made even more precarious due to widespread distrust in the police, who are seen as colluding with logging companies. Either that or our law enforcement officers are perceived as simply uninterested in the problems of a marginalised and socially disempowered group.

Non-governmental organisations have also pointed to the lack of action by the police over previous cases, such as one in 1994 where a 12-year-old was raped. An investigation by the police at the time supposedly resulted in no evidence of abuse, merely temporary marriages between Penan women and loggers. Surely, even if they could find no obvious evidence, the vulnerability of the women and girls living in isolated areas was apparent. Especially since girls in these areas are dependent on loggers for access to compulsory education.

The larger battle

At this point, the rhetorical question of how much more we, as a society, can take when it comes to violence against women often surfaces. The pessimistic answer I arrived at, after years of working on these issues, is: a lot, actually.

Even within human-rights work, women’s rights too often sit low on the list of priorities. Never mind the oft-repeated mantra that rights are interrelated. And that a woman living in fear of violence is unlikely to be able to claim, to the fullest extent possible, her rights to education, access to information, and equality before the law. And who, because of fear, also lacks control over choices relating to her own body.

For we live in a society where equality in every sense is still seen as a dirty word, and where fighting for justice often means a woman has to play a victim-martyr. And this takes us ever further from the principle that a person has rights simply by virtue of being human.

An elderly Penan woman (© Tajai @ Flickr)
I am waiting to see what will come out of the current investigations into the cases in Sarawak. I want to believe that there will be tangible outcomes that will result in justice for the women involved.

I also recognise, however, that even success at getting legal redress will not be the end. The stories of the Penan women and the 17-year-old girl sexually assaulted by a constable are part of a larger battle.

The struggle for all of us is to see that we are part of this battle. The struggle is to act upon this knowledge, and to never, ever let those in power forget that these numbers are human.

Yasmin Masidi would like to thank Adrienne Rich for inspiring the title of this piece. She also thanks the work of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific and its resource persons, particularly a recent meeting on impunity in the context of violence against women, for informing her writing.

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3 Responses to “Making people disappear”

  1. Sonia Randhawa says:

    The other factor helping police “solve” crimes against women is not taking down the report in the first place. The Awam report on rape notes how police attempt to dissuade women from reporting rape, and the same has repeatedly been noted in cases of domestic violence.

  2. Shanon Shah says:

    The following comment failed to upload, and the writer contacted The Nut Graph directly. Here is the comment in its entirety:

    “Yasmin, many thanks for your article. I have been dismayed by the near-absence of feminist voices in Malaysia as the 14-year-old news and new cases of sexualized violence against Penan women and girls has resurfaced. However, I’m also dismayed that while Malaysians have expressed such shock over rape allegations, so many have been complicit in making the destruction of the very basis of Penan community life and livelihood, and the forests on which they have depended for generations.”

    Judith Mayer, Ph.D.
    The Borneo Project
    1771 Alcatraz Avenue
    Berkeley, CA 94703
    1-415-788-3666 ext 212

  3. Flora says:

    Words are not enough to describe my anger, frustration and helplessness. This is not the first article nor will it be the last about this issue. These are despicable and vile acts that these low-life creatures continue to perpetrate with complete impunity, under the very nose of the so called authorities. Don’t the police/politicians have any sense of decency to take up the case even when it has been made known publicly? Whatever are they paid for by the taxpayers? Oh God! It pains me deeply that this still happens in our ‘educated, enlightened and developing’ country where the highest to the lowest politicians and officials prostitute themselves as champions of righteousness as and when it suits them.

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