2 strong criticisms have been published against the ways the government has sidelined the Penans’ rape problem-the Government is well advised to take serious note:
Gov’t response to Penan rape cases a mockery
Shazeera Ahmad Zawawi(Malaysiakini)
Aug 3, 10
The case of seven more Penan women being raped received mixed responses from the state government, public authorities as well as relevant stakeholders. The opposition viewed this as a violation of human rights and had urgently called for an urgent motion to be passed in the Parliament to address this report. The state government of Sarawak and the police’s responses were far from satisfying.
Claims such as the Penan girls are always known to be promiscuous or ‘easy’ are not only degrading but reflect poorly on how our public authorities and state agencies deal with violence against women cases.
At the international level, the Malaysian government has indicated immediate response to the case during the last Universal Periodic Review session. In our report to the Human Rights Council, we stated how an inter-agency committee has been established at the national level to investigate the report of alleged sexual harassment and abuse of Penan women in Sarawak by logging company workers.
Based on the expected findings put forward by the police as well as Suhakam regarding the alleged abuse of Penan women, the committee will formulate intervention programmes and provide counseling services to help the Penan women. This includes an awareness-raising campaign for the Penan society, particularly women, so that they would be able to recognise and address issues of sexual harassment and abuse.
I sincerely support efforts by civil society and Pakatan Rakyat to address this issue seriously and to bring the perpetrators to justice. I am disappointed, however with how the Sarawak state government, police and Ministry of Women, Family and Community responded to the whole issue.
The explanation given on how easy and promiscuous the Penan women are reflected the sad mindset of the authorities in addressing and dealing with violence against women (VAW) cases in the community. The rape case smight be forgotten in the years to come, but I wonder, what kind of reform will the government undertake to ensure that such incidents can be prevented or handled more effectively and judiciously should they recur?
Another major disappointment is attributed to the fact that our response to the whole furore marks our failure in observing our obligations as a state party to two main human rights treaties, the the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Both conventions offer principles and recommendations on how to address sexual abuse or violence against women (or girls) through rights-based approach and non-discriminatory ways.
As much as we like to think that these international treaties are comatose documents, the underlying principles and provisions of both treaties not only suggest viable preventive measures to overcome VAW, they also serve as a mechanism for civil society and public at large to monitor the government’s responses and responsibilities towards the victims as well as the perpetrators of sexual violence.
The systemic pattern of sexual violence suffered by the victims reflects how girls under 18 years of age in the Penan community are highly at risk as prime targets for sexual abuse and exploitation. Being illiterate and detached from information and facilities relevant to sexual health and reproductive rights as well as access to criminal justice have proven to be dis-empowering to the Penan women. Similar concerns have been raised by the CRC Committee as well.
The committee recognised how the effects of poverty and urban migration expose indigenous children to the risk of being sexual abuse victims. To break the vicious cycle, action required to address this problem should not be limited to rehabilitation of victims only. The proactive preventive measure needed here is to accord the girls in the Penan community with education and healthcare information and facilities. Furthermore, birth registration can reduce indigenous children’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation too. This is due to the fact that official identification provides formal visibility that offers legal protection and security to the children.
Hence, the government should not view its actions to address the Penan rape issue on a case-to-case basis approach. Instead, the core problem of the Penan community that are poverty and inaccessibility to education, need to be tackled as well. Not only does this require study and analysis of the root causes by the government but proper consultation must also be done with the indigenous community including the children in order to determine and come up with preventive measures that are suitable to their needs and conditions.
As such, the state government as well as the authorities need to steer clear from making remarks that are unfair towards the victims until proper documentation and studies made are proven to support their claim. In fact, the government should look into providing rehabilitative service or security mechanism for victims of sexual violence in rural areas. The excuse that the authorities do not have the budget to provide such facilities in the rural areas for the victims are unfounded. Rosmah Mansor had recently announced that ‘Wisma Wanita’ will be set up in all states. Where would the money come from, if we may ask?
In addition to that, the Sarawak state government’s lack of political will in bringing the perpetrators to justice is highly suspect and uncalled for. General Comment No.19 of Cedaw suggests that state is bound to ensure justice prevails for the victims even if the perpetrator of the sexual crimes or exploitation belongs to an enterprise or private companies. This also indicates the need for the government to focus its plan on ensuring that the victims are recovered and rehabilitated. The government must also ensure that justice is restored by charging those responsible in a court of law.
Last but not least, the government should not continue to accuse the civil society and opposition as being foreign agents with hidden agenda as a defence against these sectors’ call for effective action from the government. We don’t need to have foreign agents with ulterior motives among us since our own international human rights card has so much to offer for worldwide mockery.
August 3, 2010
By Salbiah Ahmad(Malaysiakini)
It was hard not to miss the consistent media reports since the end of 2009 to date on the sexual abuse of Penan women and girls. What was more distressing was the government inertia in responding promptly to the reported abuses, despite a government task force supporting the allegations of rape and sexual abuse.
It is unclear if the report is an official secret as that report is still not on any government website. These are the hiccups associated with the BN government’s fear of dissemination of information that has the public giving the thumbs-up to Selangor’s FOI enactment.
The delay in releasing the task force report is disquieting. The reason for the delay could be that Malaysia’s UPR (universal periodic review) was due in February 2009 before the Human Rights Council (HRC). Malaysia’s country report did mention the task force to “investigate the report of alleged sexual harassment and abuse of Penan women in Sarawak by logging company workers”.
Government losing control
As the report was under the radar, it went unnoticed in the NGO report to the UPR and in the NGO lobby at the HRC, missing the international attention which the issue now receives.
The Public Support Group fact-finding report (PSG report) of 2010 recorded other incidences in addition to the initial eight in the government report, and highlighted the dispossession and disempowerment of the community as a result of development works in the region.
The backlash to the PSG report can only be understood of a government losing control of the situation.
Action on the government report was postponed, as the ministry will now investigate the new incidences. This inaction supports suspicion that there are no concrete steps developed to address the immediate needs of the victims, nor were there measures to address root causes.
Instead of welcoming the report as an important contribution to the cause, the report was taken by BN politicians as an affront to the popular support which the government says it enjoys. Alfred Jabu, Sarawak’s DPM claims that it’s only the disgruntled few who had “their own agendas”.
It is hard to follow the logic of ministers James Masing and Fadillah Yusoff. Their opinions are reminiscent of colonisers, to wit that the natives are different from us and that difference allows us to treat them differently.
They also appear to moot the idea that because of difference of sexual mores between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – for example, that sexual activity has cultural acceptance at 14 years of age – therefore the sexual abuse of Penan women and children is legitimate. It’s like saying that the victims asked to be raped and abused. In any other working democracy, these two ministers would have to show cause as to why they should not resign from their posts.
This sideshow does not help us understand – if and how – Penan women and girls are caught between their own struggle for gender justice within their own communities, and their dependence upon and support for their community’s indigenous identity in its resistance to ‘capitalistic profit-oriented’ development.
This means acquiring knowledge of the problems Penan women and girls face on the basis of their biological sex as females, and on the basis of sex-role stereotyping in their community. We need to know if that internal struggle of women is affected by the women’s membership to the community from which they claim their cultural identity. Then there is the community’s struggle against development which denies the women and their community’s right to cultural diversity and identity as an indigenous cultural group.
Women are not oppressed on the basis of gender (sex and sex-role stereotyping) alone. In investigating the oppression of Penan women and girls, manifested by sexual assault, other factors such as economic, ideological, ethnic/cultural grouping, political and other divisions and differences among women are equally relevant.
These are some basic points of reference. They are treated in different categories and as many categories in order that we may better understand the complexity of issues involved. In turn this understanding would help us to identify the appropriate strategies and target them accordingly.
Given the complexity of the problem, it is only reasonable to expect that the task force recommendations should go beyond “awareness raising” of Penan women and girls “so that they would be able to recognise and address issues of sexual harassment and abuse” as stated in the Malaysian UPR report to the HRC in February 2009.
While there are important specificities to the Penan crisis, there are measures common to a framework to eliminate violence against women (VAW) and discrimination against all women. The Penan crisis has dramatically brought to light the absence or failures of national mechanisms to address VAW.
List of ‘must haves’
For example, we still do not have national statistical systems geared to measure the magnitude and the different forms of VAW. We are still using police statistics for this purpose. This is highly unsatisfactory as this would only involve actual reports taken by police and on particular kinds of sexual abuse recognised under the law. Talk to any social worker on VAW and they will tell you that the police would be a last resort especially when it involves sexual abuse.
We do not know if the one-stop centre “at major hospitals” established in 1998 “for a coordinated management of rape and other forms of VAW and children ” – from the 2004 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) report – coordinated by the Ministry of Health is fully functioning, properly funded with monitoring and evaluation systems in place. The Royal Malaysian Police partners this programme. There is only one sentence attributed to the one-stop centre in Malaysia’s CEDAW report. The 2009 UPR report is silent.
A functioning one-stop centre, accessible to the Penan community, would have greatly improved some institutional responses to the problem if not the root causes for the time-being.
There is a list of must-haves in any intelligent policy on VAW. This is not rocket science. There is an explosion of tools, modules, frameworks, policies, indicators, anything under the sun over the internet. The UN, international agencies, funders, NGOs, corporations have their best practices and these are accessible.
The list of must-haves should not detract us from a prompt national response to the Penan crisis. The PSG report states that this is a decade-old problem. A royal commission is doable.
I sincerely hope that voters realise that the setting up of a royal commission for any number of unresolved issues is an indication of failed institutions. And voters should take politicians to task.
What are the commitments of political parties to the elimination of discrimination and violence against women for the next GE? What have been the concrete measures undertaken by the opposition in state governments? Let’s see some concrete commitments from those who wish to lobby for the people’s vote.