Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS) dreams of the day when women and girls are free from abuse in all its forms. Although there has been progress since the passing of the Domestic Violence Act and the Child Act there is still a long way to go.
At its recent forum ‘Abuse: Old Issues - New Contexts’, both the progress and the gaps were clear, according to SWWS’s president Margaret Bedus. “We are delighted that after so many years of asking there is to be a shelter for abused women and look forward to working with the government on this.”
“However, this is just one step towards resolving the problems,” she added. “Now the next challenge is to overcome the ‘Touch & Go’ responses so common across services. To do this we look for (i) more resources to provide effective, integrated services (2) a change in attitude and (3) supporting abused women and children to be given a higher priority by society.”
At the forum Associate Professor Dr Zabidah Putit, from the Faculty of Health and Medical Science, Unimas, shared graphic accounts of the terrible abuse women from all walks of life have experienced. “Reports of Domestic Violence within Sarawak are increasing,” she said, “which shows there is more awareness as the real number of incidences will be much higher than the reported rate”.
One of her major concerns was that often when women reported, they did not receive the help they needed. So they had to keep repeatedly reporting and waiting for effective action - an experience which was echoed by participants at the forum. In some highly publicised cases the women had died.
Zabidah therefore welcomed the recent announcement that a shelter, that she was passionate about, was on the way but, like Margaret, called for more collaborative action and wider awareness.
She also stated the need to end patriarchal attitudes which still expected women to be subordinate to men, adding that such unacceptable attitudes created an environment which tolerated violence and were not respectful of women and were not following the true teaching found in the Quran.
On the part of the police there has been progress compared to when the DV Act was first introduced. DSP Jennifer Atok , from PDRM Headquarters, shared with the audience the systems of reporting - which, now they are online in many stations is faster - and other new developments, especially in the area of handling reports of child sexual abuse.
There is now a special victim centre in Kuching were evidence can be video-taped sparing the child additional stress in court and the police have employed their first psychologist in the centre to assist the survivor and her family.
Another advance was the new ICACCOPS system. This, as explained by her colleague, ASP Nur Ilyana, meant the police can now track who is downloading child pornography and where they are located. With the increase in cybercrime the police are working with forces in other countries to find ways of tracking paedophiles and warning the public of crimes and other harmful behaviour online.
Participants were also impressed with the new video in Bahasa Malaysia on Cyber Bullying and the campaign the police are running called ‘Think Twice - Stop: Think: Connect’ designed to help prevent cyber-crime.
The cyber-dimension in crime was also highlighted by panelist Gill Raja, a lecturer in Social Work at Unimas and active SWWS member. She particularly appealed for more understanding for the survivors of romance scams who were left betrayed, blamed and financially broke.
She called for faster and more caring responses from the authorities so the chance of catching these well-organised criminal networks was increased and more support was given to those making the reports.
“Although cyber-crime is new, the way people are hooked is the old ‘grooming’ method seen in child abuse where the abuser gains trust by being very pleasant”, she said, adding “and the way society reacts is the same negative blaming response we have seen towards women who have survived rape. Instead the focus needs to be on catching the criminal and supporting the survivor.”
In contrast, she highlighted how in the ‘finger rape’ case in Sarawak the public were so outraged by the Appeal Courts decision that the attention given to the case led to a promise to amend the Penal Code swiftly. The details of that amendment are eagerly anticipated and there will be disappointment if it drags into next year.
The range of exploitation and sexual abuse was vast ranging from the documented problems for the Penan community in the Baram to the issues of human trafficking and child sexual abuse.
To tackle such issues comprehensively SWWS uges more systematic collaboration between agencies at the local level and more training of all parties including the key child protection officers in the Police and Welfare Department (JKM).
It was pointed out that the planned Social Work Act was aimed to address this within JKM by ensuring only qualified people were appointed to undertake the complex task of running child protection services run by the government, but unfortunately its aim was misunderstood.
To avoid the ‘touch and go’ approach currently evident, SWWS urges more systematic intervention which recognises the complexity in each occurrence of abuse and has the capacity to provide sustained help and reach all parts of the state. This will require more resources and more support from the public. Everyone can assist by reaching out to abused people, giving them support and putting them in touch with agencies who can help. Abuse needs to be stopped.
SWWS in due course will be raising a range of recommendations arising from our Women Calling for Change series of forums. Women who missed the last forum on Abuse: Old Issues New Contexts but wish to share experience and ideas on the topic can contact SWWS by email [email protected] or phoning our drop-in centre on 082 416053.