Disorder amidst order

Published : Jul 07, 2001 00:00 IST

Incidents of rape and sexual abuse are on the rise in Malaysia. A case study of a country which has undertaken a drastic restructuring of the economy and which has a high growth rate, with regard to the situation of women.

ANG MAY HONG and Audrey Melissa lived in different places and at different times in Malaysia. However, their deaths, Ang May's at nine years of age in 1987 and Audrey's at 17 in 1999, bore similarities, and both aroused intense debates about the increasing incidence of rape in the country.

Incidents of rape and sexual abuse are rising alarmingly in Malaysia. The All Women's Action Society's National Report makes disturbing reading. On an average 4.1 cases of rape were reported a day in 1998, up from 2.4 cases a day in 1993. Even conservative estimates of cases that go unreported yield a far more alarming figure of 1.7 rapes an hour. Almost 56 per cent of the victims are below 16 years of age. Sixty per cent of the incidents take place inside buildings, including the victim's own home. Only one in 10 reported cases leads to conviction. The report was based on a study of 417 court cases and interviews with 89 persons including police officers, medical personnel and welfare officials.

The rape and murder of Audrey was not just brutal; it also revealed how too many basic requirements were lacking even in a place where she was supposed to be safe. On May 18, 1999, Audrey was found murdered about 300 metres from her school. A post-mortem examination revealed that she had been raped, battered on the head, and strangled. Margaret Francis, 42, the mother of the victim, said in Kuala Lumpur. "Before Audrey's murder, students had complained of lack of safety for them while on their way to and from school. However, the school authorities ignored the complaints and in fact hid the complaints from the Parents Association and the police. Even a week before the incident, girls had been threatened and physically harassed near the school twice, and they were quite disturbed over this." An agitated Margaret Francis filed a negligence suit in the High Court against the school and the government in December 1999. The hearing of the case was progressing at a snail's pace.

Thus, it is clear that a drastic restructuring of the economy, a high economic growth rate and attainment of the status of "a country in the upper middle income group" are not enough to ensure the security of women in a country. Siti Hawa Ali, secretary of the Women's Crisis Centre in Penang, explains the broad trends, as gathered from a study by her organisation of reported rape cases across the country from 1980 to 1996: "Since 1980 there has been an increase in the number of reported cases of rape. There has been a marked increase since 1990. The highest number of rape cases has been reported in urbanised and in highly industrialised States such as Selangor, Johore, Perak and Wilayah Persekutuan. In East Malaysia, the State of Sabah, though not highly urbanised, also shows a high number of reported cases."

In a micro-level study of cases reported in Penang from 1990 to 1996, the Women's Crisis Centre found that more than 50 rape cases had been reported each year. The number of cases increased from 39 during 1990 to 57 during 1996. A large number of rape cases are reported from districts that have a relatively urbanised population, that is, Seberang Perai Tengah, namely, the district of Bukit Mertajam; Timur Laut, that is, Georgetown and surrounding areas; and Seberang Perai Utara, that is, the district of Butterworth. Less urbanised districts such as Barat Daya (Balik Pulau) and Seberang Perai Selatan (Jawi) report lower figures.

The surveys also demonstrated the fact that most of the offenders were not strangers but were closely related to, or were known to, the victims. According to police statistics for 1995, of the reported 1,007 cases, in 838 cases the offenders were known to the victims. The offenders included casual acquaintances (240), new acquaintances (114), biological fathers (65), step-fathers (29), uncles (32), neighbours (87), boyfriends (134), employers (21) and others.

The economic transformation of the country has put Malaysian women in a precarious situation. In the 8.9 million-strong workforce in the country in 1998, women constituted about 30 per cent. A large proportion of the female population was still in the unpaid sector. However, there has been a marked rise in the representation of women in the labour force, particularly among the urban industrial workforce, in the last two years.

According to an official document, Seventh Malaysia Plan 1996-2000, women constituted 13.5 per cent of professional, technical and related workers; 1.9 per cent of administrative and managerial workers; 17.6 per cent of clerical and related workers; 11.3 per cent of sales-related workers; 13.4 per cent of service workers; 15.8 per cent of agricultural workers and 26.5 per cent of production-related workers. Caught between an industrial regime driven by production and profit motives which characterise globalisation, and domestic and family situations marked by conflicts, violence, and dominance, women are at the receiving end. A series of legislative measures passed in recent decades, such as the Women and Girls' Protection Act, 1973, the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act, 1976, and the Islamic Family Law Enactment and the Domestic Violence Act, 1994 have been unable to keep pace with the rising rate of crimes against women.

The experience of a foreigner who took up employment as a production worker in a leading factory in Penang is revealing. Belonging to a well-to-do family, she came to Malaysia mainly to gain experience. On the pretext of giving her and her friend a lift, some persons forcibly took her to an office, then to a hotel and then an island, and repeatedly assaulted her sexually. She managed to call the police, who rescued her and arrested the culprits. She recalls: "The legal procedure that I went through was stressful, especially when I had to describe the incidents several times to the authorities. When most of my friends came to know of the rape from my employer, I experienced a lot of shame, sense of guilt and fear. The men have been convicted, but I still fear for my safety."

Increasing incidents of rape by fathers, uncles and other relatives and family friends have created "disorder" in the fragile moral "order". A 17-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by her father after her mother died and was threatened with dire consequences if she dared to open her mouth. Later the girl narrated her agony to her mother's sister, who in turn reported the matter to the police. The girl was removed from the house and the father arrested. But even after one and a half years, the girl is suffering in other ways. She has several disturbing experiences. She said: "My dad was let out on bail in a few days, and I started receiving threats from him. I was lucky that I had supportive relatives at that time. Everybody in the area came to know about the incident through the photograph of dad published in the newspapers. It was painful when relatives and friends were constantly probing. It is almost 18 months now, but my case has still not been called to court. The wait is extremely stressful. I am concerned about my two siblings, who are staying with my dad and stepmother."

Against the backdrop of the growing violence against women, women's organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have raised a series of questions regarding the country's laws concerning rape. These laws, which have taken a long and protracted course of evolution, come under the Criminal Penal Code. In 1989, as a response to campaigns by women's organisations, the government passed the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill to amend the laws relating to rape. The amendments fixed the minimum punishment for rape as five years' imprisonment and the maximum 20 years' imprisonment, a harsher penalty than before. The age limit for statutory rape was raised from below 14 years to 16 years. It was also set down that under the Evidence Act the history of sexual behaviour of the victim cannot be brought up during the course of the trial, unless it is related to the case in question.

However, still there are serious gaps in the matter of rape laws. According to Zaitun Mohammed Kasim of the All Women's Action Society, the present definition of rape needs to be widened; she says that when any part of a person's body or object is used to penetrate another's body forcibly it must be construed as rape, regardless of gender. Further, other forms of sexual assault should also be considered as acts of rape, she says.

THE role of the police in rape cases has also come under question many a time. Mano Hary Subramaniam of the All Women's Action Society, who counsels rape victims, remarks: "The attitude of the police has been that bad girls are raped. I speak to the women after they have lodged a police report, and they say that the police ask questions about why they had gone out so late at night and how many boyfriends they had." Elsie Lee, a medical officer at the University Hospital, while narrating her experiences of working with rape victims, says that the police treat the victims insensitively. "Police officers," she says, "seem too curious ... The way they discuss the incident among themselves and look at the victims makes it obvious that women are not supported here."

Women's organisations and support groups have noted the biases among some high-ranking police officials. Four suspects in the rape of a factory worker in Bukit Mertajam were released in 1998 on the grounds that the victim, after lodging the police complaint, was "evasive". The police in the northern State of Kedah gave a statement that only 2 per cent of the 77 cases of rape reported to them in 1995 were "genuine" ones. Many such cases involved teenagers and minors and some of them had been raped by members of their own families. Even then senior police officers concluded that the "overwhelming majority of victims had consented to the act."

Among the cases that have come to light are rape cases reported to the police station and attended to at a hospital but are not brought to court. Expressing his concern over this, a doctor in Penang said that when he worked in another State, he had examined many young victims, several of whom had suffered serious injuries, but had never been called to give evidence in court. This meant that these cases were never brought for trial, according to him. He cited the case of an Indonesian woman worker, whom he had personally cared for. He said: "She was a domestic worker. Her employer physically abused her. He often burnt her with an electric iron. Later he forced her into prostitution. When she refused to entertain clients, she was abused physically. Somehow she managed to escape and the police sent her to hospital. During examination, I was shocked to see serious injuries on her body. I kept her in the ward for some time, as she had nowhere to go. However, in time she had to leave. I have always wondered what happened to her. The case went to court."

The case of Audrey Melissa and the National Report reveal many worrisome aspects. Every group of medical personnel interviewed from the departments of accident and emergency, obstetrics and gynaecology reported a lack of trained personnel to handle rape survivors. Respondents from the accident and emergency department said that they did not have experienced staff to deal with rape cases. Doctors and psychiatrists, therefore, avoided handling rape victims. Some hospitals reported that they did not have "rape kits" to obtain proper samples, while others said that they lacked equipment of the right size to examine child victims.

Shareem Amry, a feminist writer and a researcher, draws attention to another problem that rape victims face in the prevailing system: "Under the present police procedure, the victim must face a line-up of suspects and identify her attacker by tapping him on the shoulder. This is an unimaginably terrifying process for the victim and, as many victims have said, is insensitive and does not take into account the fact that facing her attacker in person may only frighten the victim into silence, not encourage her to cooperate."

Another point emerging especially from the NGOs working on rape cases is the non-recognition of rape within a marriage. Under Malaysian law, marital rape does not exist. In fact, the law on rape states that "sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife by a marriage which is valid under any written law for the time being in force, or is recognised in the Federation as valid, is not rape." However, organisations such as the Women's Crisis Centre, Penang, stress that in contemporary Malaysian society, they have enough evidence of women going through forced sex within their marriage. Dr. Badriyah Salleh of the Centre says: "One is often reminded of the famous 17th century declaration of Lord Mathew Hales that, 'A husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract she has given up herself to this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.''' She added: "The notion that a woman 'belongs' to her husband is one that has been inherited from English criminal law, on which our Penal Code is based. England has since changed its stand on a married woman's rights, through a 1988 amendment to its Sexual Offences Act. Malaysia, however, has not."

The death of Audrey Melissa still haunts women's organisations and their support groups in the country, which are striving for the widest possible unity to press for certain demands related to changes in the existing rape laws. They want further amendments to be made. They ask for a separate set of laws to be drawn up in view of the rising number of incest cases. They say that several procedures that govern the handling of rape cases must also be reviewed. Another area that they want looked into is the implementation of laws during trials. Several rape trials are allowed to drag on. Further, although the law says that the victim cannot be questioned about her sexual history, observations during court trials show that this is not followed. Better housing, infrastructure and rehabilitation have also been sought for rape victims.

It is said that independent Malaysia's economic and political experience has been a success, and this success accounts for its social cohesion, mass compliance to the rule of law and political stability. This is claimed to be a record that is not matched elsewhere in the region. However, little attention is given to the social costs of the country's economic and social arrangement and the exercise of ruthless political authority. Rape is one of these hidden social costs that question the claims of cohesion and economic and political legitimacy.

Law against domestic violence

IT was the rising rate of crimes against women, especially rape, within the family, that prompted Malaysia's women's organisations to press for comprehensive legislation to meet the situation. They forced the state to enact the Domestic Violence Act, 1994. Thus Malaysia became the only Muslim country to go in for such a progressive Act. The Indian government is considering the enactment of such a law. The Malaysian law and the experience of its implementation hold many lessons.

Domestic violence is abuse committed within the family. It includes slapping, kicking, choking, hitting the head against the wall, forced sex or sexual acts, threatening to hurt, and making someone feel small, stupid or worthless.

The Act recognises the fact that domestic violence is a serious problem that must be stopped. It seeks to protect from an offender immediate family members, including spouses, ex-spouses, children (including adopted children), adults with mental or physical disabilities, and any other person considered part of a family. The Act applies to everyone, including Muslims, who constitute the main religious segment of the population in Malaysia.

One can make a complaint about domestic violence and seek protection. One can apply to the court for help. The court can give an Interim Protection Order (IPO), which protects one from further violence. If the offender is charged with the crime, the victim can further apply for a Protection Order (P.O.). A P.O. can give even more protection than the IPO, because the court can attach other orders to it. For example, a P.O. can give the sufferer the right to live in the same house without the offender, order the offender to stay away from the house, workplace or school, and not to talk to or write to the sufferer. The court can also order monetary compensation to the sufferer to offset losses.

Under the Act, it is the duty of the police to act against offenders and prosecute them under criminal law. At the same time, the sufferer is entitled to sue the offender under civil law seeking compensation.

However, women's organisations and non-governmental organisations point out certain shortcomings in the Act. Apart from seeking to widen the definition of domestic violence in order to enable marital rape to be considered an offence, they want victims to be entitled to apply for protection orders for offences described in the Act and not just for offences listed in the Penal Code. At present the police can charge a person only if the offence committed falls within those described in the Penal Code.

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