Pondering Malaysia’s gender issues

It’s that time of the year again, and no, I’m not talking about Christmas.

A month left to the end of the year – and just a few weeks leading up to year-end festivities – we are tackling slightly more sombre issues with White Ribbon Day to start off the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.

For the uninitiated, White Ribbon Day falls on the 25th November and is focused on ending violence against women (VAW). The first ever White Ribbon Campaign was launched in 1991 by a group of men in Canada after the brutal mass shooting of 14 female engineering students at the University of Montreal, by a man who viewed successful women as a threat.

This is an issue very close to my heart, and so every year I feel compelled to do something about it, however small (including writing this post). For me, the well-being of women come hand-in-hand with the well-being of children, so naturally I tend to group the two together when thinking about what White Ribbon Day is really all about.

The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is an international campaign originating from the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute sponsored by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership in 1991. Participants chose the dates: November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women; and December 10, International Human Rights Day – in order to symbolically link violence against women and human rights while serving to emphasize that such occurrences are violations of human rights. This 16-day period also highlights other significant dates – including November 29, International Women Human Rights Defenders Day; December 1, World AIDS Day; and December 6, the Anniversary of the Montreal Massacre (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights).

As one who has been championing the cause for a number of years now, these are my observations on VAW and other related issues:-

Observation #1 – The Gender Divide

A lot of people view the issue as a women’s problem that should be tackled by women, or more precisely, the women’s organisations. Because if the woman learns to protect herself, do the right things, and avoid dangerous situations… problem solved, right?

Wrong!

From the moment we were born, girls are taught to be ‘good’. We are told how to dress, how to behave, and how to talk like a lady.. We are given strict curfews that our male siblings usually are not given. We have all these messages drummed into our heads about what it means to be a ‘good girl’ and how being good usually leads you to a fairy-tale life.

If girls are all brought up to be ‘good’, instilled with the proper morals, then why is there an increasing number of rape cases every year? According to statistics given by Women’s Centre for Change in Penang, there has been an increase of a total 2,409 cases of rape from the year 2000 (1,217 cases) to the year 2009 (3,626 cases). A whopping 198% increase!!

The fact is, we need good men in the picture. Good men who will work alongside with us in our cause. Because men and boys are more likely to listen to other men and boys, and emulate their good examples.

Boys need to be brought up to respect girls / women as equal counterparts. We women don’t need more lessons than what we already have on how to be ‘good’ and avoid being raped. Both sides need to be educated equally.

Observation #2 – Pinning the blame on the victim

She was having an affair, so she deserved it!”

I am still shocked by some of the responses to the story of Amanda Fong and the YouTube video that went viral of the 19-year-old pregnant woman being beaten up by her 26-year-old husband last September. The shocking part was not so much that a man was pummeling away for a good 10 minutes on his pregnant wife, but the responses of the numerous people who supported his actions with many unsavoury reasons about her put forward (which may or may not be true, but that is NOT the point).

Naturally, I am against violence in any form, so I posted a few comments about how no one should be beaten up, regardless of what they have done. The full story can be found here. The result was that I was called a number of names – including ‘tardcake’ and ‘borderline stupid’ because he loves her and was ‘protecting her’ (a point I will come to later).

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah said it best: when a woman is abused, society asks “Are you a good wife/mother/person?” implying that somehow it could be her fault she was treated badly. When the abused is a man, he would never be asked the same question. (Shackled by fear, Elaine Dong, The Star, 10th November 2011)

This is obviously a mentality that needs to be changed.

Observation #3 – Recognising other forms of abuse

Our society is still a far cry from this. When we talk about abuse, many still perceive physical violence resulting in injury and even death, as the only type of abuse that exists. And that is punishable under law.

This may be the reason why many victims choose to be silent. They are just not aware that they are being abused – be it emotionally/mentally, verbally, sexually, economically or even abuse by isolation.

Of course, some positive developments have been made with statutory amendments.

The Domestic Violence (Amendment) Act 2011 amended the definition of “domestic violence” in the original Act to include acts of causing psychological abuse, which includes emotional injury to the victim (“psychological abuse, including emotional injury”).

However there must be correlating changes made to the penal code to reflect this.

  • Making domestic violence a seizable offence, which allows the police to investigate and arrest immediately
  • The automatic attachment of the power to arrest to every protection order when violence is likely. This enables the police to arrest a perpetrator when a protection order has been violated
  • A protection order may be made to prohibit or restrict the perpetrator from communicating by any means with the protected person

While the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) lauded the move, it notes that many crucial issues raised in JAG press statements and memoranda since 1999 have still not been addressed. These issues include:

  • Stalking and intimidation, which are common forms of domestic violence and should be included into the definition of what constitutes domestic violence in the DVA
  • The category of victims/perpetrators must be broadened to include intimate partner violence, so that relationships outside of marriage can be included under the protection of the DVA
  • Recognition that domestic violence be a separate offence under the penal code. As it currently is not, charges for domestic violence offences under the penal code do not reflect the serious, persistent and often repetitive nature of domestic violence. Domestic violence must be addressed in the penal code so that it can be read harmoniously with the DVA (Domestic Violence Act amendments not enough, Malaysiakini)

And of course, whether the act will be successfully implemented and enforced, is a different matter entirely. The crux of the matter is still education and awareness. Without it, victims continue to be silent.

Observation #4 – Domestic violence is still taboo

Marriage may be seen as a licence to abuse!”

Or perhaps that is what they should put as a warning on all marriage papers so that newlyweds-to-be will think long and hard before signing.

According to WAO’s (Malaysian Women’s Aid Organisation) website, almost 40% of Malaysian women are estimated to have experienced domestic abuse – a very high percentage which means that approximately one in every two women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

A very high number, don’t you think?

No one wants to think of the unthinkable – the sanctity of marriage destroyed. No one gets married with the thought that one day they will part. Sure, some may divorce with the silliest of excuses, but domestic violence is not an issue to be taken lightly.

For the victim there is the frustration of seeking assistance from others and not being listened to. Instead many are advised to be more patient, not to provoke the abuser and to persist with the marriage. Abuse towards a wife or a girlfriend, unfortunately, appears to be culturally accepted in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and a large proportion of people refuse to interfere in relationship problems.

What does that say to the victim?

THERE’S NO WAY OUT.

Observation #5 – Love as a viable excuse for violence

Again, reverting to the Amanda Fong story on Observation #2, people were giving excuses for the abusive husband on the basis that he loved her and was taking care of her.

Yes, really. Keeping her imprisoned and beating her up was a way of showing love and protecting her from whatever horrible things might happen out there on the street.

It’s easy to believe that this response is a way of them (the supporters) justifying their own possessive and abusive actions. There must be something wrong in the way we, as a whole, are brought up.

Love has become such a cheap word.

Observation #6 – Child marriages are excused from Statutory Rape

Horrifyingly, girls can be allowed to be married off as young as 12, as is evident in the wedding of 12-year-old Nur Fazira Saad to her 19-year-old boyfriend Fahmi Alias just last week in Kedah. The girl’s father made the appeal to the Syariah Court to grant permission for his 12-year-old daughter to marry because she refused to return home, preferring to stay at her boyfriend’s house.

Why do these parents simply wash their hands of such a matter, instead of finding a better solution? Not only are child-marriages (and yes, underage sex followed with teen pregnancy for sure) detrimental to the health of the girl, whose reproductive organs have yet to achieve maturity, but will she know her basic human rights as well as her rights as a wife? Will she be able to be mature enough and properly educated to negotiate and discuss her needs with her husband? A child marriage also involves taking a child away from her rights to education, and a better future.

Underage marriages are seemingly quite common, with the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 23-year-old school teacher also making waves in the news 2 years ago. These are some of the more high-profile child marriages, but there must be more that have escaped the glare of the media.

According to United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), anyone under the age of 18 is considered a child (Child Act 2001 – Malaysia states it to be 16) and having sex with a child is statutory rape, regardless of consent. The Muslim community, however, are lenient where girls below the age of 16 (and boys below the age of 18 ) can gain the permission of the Syariah courts to marry, which is often granted without much hassle.

However, it seems now that even statutory rape is taken lightly where there were cases in October when two men, aged 19 and 22 (one of them a national bowler), were released on probation after courts convicted them of statutory rape. In both cases the girls, aged 12 and 13, had not been forced, lawyers said.

I don’t believe that is a logical argument.

How does a girl at the age of 12 or 13, or even 16, possibly know what love is, much less whether she’s ready to have sex? Is she mature enough to understand what it means, and consider its consequences? There must have been reasons for the enactment of such laws; it was to protect those who still require the guidance of an adult.

Perhaps we should rethink and understand the difference between lust and love. If only boys were taught that love is more than the stirring of the loins. If they understood that love meant respecting a girl, which also comes to mean waiting for a girl to be ready and for the time to be right for her, such problems might face relief in the world today.

Even more strange is how sex is such a taboo subject in Malaysia, earlier this year causing the ban of a nearly 30-year-old sex education book titled ‘Where Did I Come From?’ by British author Peter Mayle – on the basis that it is ‘obscene’ and contains ‘elements that undermine societal morals and public interests’.

Nothing more obscene than making a 12 year-old get married before her time. Well I suppose they do nothing after getting married but play Scrabble at night. Right.

Learn about sex – bad, totally immoral, but put it into practice – a big thumbs-up OK!

Only in Malaysia.

Observation #7 – Availability of information is sorely lacking

For victims, finding information on what to do next, when they finally realise they are being abused, is a little sketchy.

Essential information such as relevant laws protecting victims, types of help available and step-by-step procedures are all not readily at hand. A large proportion of the public does not have access or knowledge of such information, and so depend mostly on hearsay.

It is likely that the victim will only be made aware of what to do next, when she lodges a complaint at the police station. Even then, the victim will also have to endure recounting her story over and over again as she visits the various departments – hospital, counselling, welfare department, lawyer, etc as there is no file or system shared among these departments. Having to retell a story again and again is the same as putting the victim through the experience again and again, causing emotional distress in an already stressful position.

We pride ourselves in having high international standards in many things, and hi-tech everything, but the same unfortunately doesn’t apply to important inter-departmental communications and affairs.

The 7 points above basically sums up my observations; however, I still feel like I’ve only just barely scraped the tip of the iceberg.

Personally, I think the issue of women and gender equality is so incredibly vast that my vision is still a bit too near-sighted, especially, say, when it comes to the extra problems indigenous women face.

A friend of mine lent me a folder she obtained while on a visit to the UN headquarters in New York. I looked at the UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality map provided in their kit. There have been no funds granted for Malaysia, Thailand or even Indonesia to date.

Is gender equality seen as a less important issue to be addressed in these countries, I wonder.

But if I could write a proposal today, some of the things on my wish list would include these, among others:-

1. Gender sensitizing workshops for schools and service providers

2. VAW victims sensitizing training programmes for service providers (you cannot believe how insensitive and self-righteous people can be when dealing with traumatised victims)

3. Establish a one-stop centre to give comprehensive info for victims of VAW on their options, with connections to relevant people to contact

4. Perhaps a proper filing system and documents that can be brought from different parts of the reporting system (e.g. the hospital, counselling unit, welfare unit, police, etc) so that the victims do not need to keep on recounting their horrifying turn of events again and again to different people

5. Campaign for “Do Not Rape” or “Do not Abuse” instead of “Do Not Get Raped” or “Do Not Get Abused”

Promoting Gender Equality and Empowering Women is goal number 3 of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, but looking at my observations, much work still needs to be done to achieve it.

We have not yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel.

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Involved in many causes, many NGOs including Sabah Women's Action-Resource Group (SAWO) and many events at once, but it is a choice and just something she cannot resist. According to her, life is too short to be content with being bored. Her favourite phrase is 'Carpe Diem', which she applies to her everyday life. More of her ramblings can be found on her personal blog: www.sabrinaaripen.blogspot.com

Posted on 24 November 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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One Response to Pondering Malaysia’s gender issues

  1. I really hope there will be campaigns that educate and focus on men instead of always putting the blame on victims(women) mostly for all the crimes.