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.
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