by Shanthi Dairiam
Based on witness testimonies by Sofia (pseudonym), Haresa, Shakila Zen, Alia Affendy and Puteri Nuraaina Balqis
1.1 The Women’s Tribunal heard accounts of various situations that serve to instigate and perpetrate a spectrum of gender-based violence (GBV): Sofia’s stalking experience by an ex-intimate partner; Shakila’s online harassment by members of the public; the backlash Alia, a young political activist, faced when she openly challenged the legitimacy of Malaysia’s 9th Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and his backdoor government; evidence of harassment with impunity in schools as gathered by Puteri, an activist; and the experience of Haresa with little options in life due to her poverty and vulnerability as a refugee who is a victim of child marriage and faces a lifetime of violence, unwanted pregnancies and deprivation.
1.2 In some cases, there is no one perpetrator and no one victim. Such situations illustrate how GBV and the risk of GBV permeates the whole social environment.
1.3 An interim report by the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) on the incidence of violence against women (VAW) — with data gathered from an online platform set up by Puteri to encourage women survivors and victims of violence to report their experiences — revealed that:
Sexual harassment alone comprised 70 per cent of the 1,145 reported incidents of violence;
The number of sexual harassment incidents involving only female survivors was 16.6 times more than those involving only male survivors; and
Figures of authority in schools made up 41.1 per cent of all perpetrators.
2.1 Issues of concern
2.1.1 Sofia is obsessively harassed by her stalker through various methods such as emails of unsolicited pictures, spreading of rumours and demands for sex, and making contact, sometimes throughout the night. The perpetrator instils fear and intimidates her by reminding her that he is tracking her online and offline. Her space is completely invaded. He contacts her ex-spouse and harasses her family and friends.
(b) Online harassment
2.1.2 One form of public harassment takes place online through social media. Sometimes this can turn into threats of violence.
2.1.3 Shakila Zen who is an environmental activist working against deforestation and the abuse of power is harassed online and blamed for being outspoken with messages such as “behave like a woman”. The public hostility directed at her has included threats to “do indecent things” to her, shaming her body, and messaging her for sex services, i.e. the harassment and threats are sexualised. Friends abandoned her because she had seen a psychiatrist, and were dismissive of her as a woman, especially after a few of her advocacy videos became popular. Women’s sexuality is exploited as a site for degrading treatment, and for violating their sense of dignity.
2.1.4 At one point the harassment Shakila experienced turned into a serious threat of violence. A package delivered to her house by courier contained a replica of a human hand covered in red paint that looked like blood. There was also a note with a picture of her inside the package, along with threats to pour acid on her face and burn her house if she continued her work as an activist.
2.1.5 Similarly, vicious attacks were directed against Alia Affendy, a political activist, through every possible social media platform, after she challenged the legitimacy of the then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin and his backdoor government. Derogatory memes were created about her. She was said to be deranged and bodily shamed. She was also accused of being a political puppet of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and her detractors asked the police (PDRM) to investigate her actions.
2.1.6 Like Shakila, some of these attacks instigated violence, for example, Alia reports that a relatively famous artist had created a comic that illustrated a man stepping on the victim, implying that physical violence against a victim is legitimate.
(c) Sexual harassment generally and sexism in schools
2.1.7 Sexual harassment and rape culture, which seems to be widely prevalent in Malaysian society, is a silent issue. Survivors do not come forward to speak of their experience.
2.1.8 A very disturbing example of sexism in schools given by Puteri Nuraaina Balqis is the backlash against Ain Husniza’s viral TikTok post where she shared her experience encountering rape jokes by a teacher in school. Misogynistic remarks came from both men and women, and a group of teachers allegedly spread a rumour that Ain was autistic therefore not to be taken seriously. To Puteri, the latter reflected “ableism, ignorance, dismissal, and betrayal coming from authoritative figures in schools”.
2.1.9 According to her, survivors who try to seek help are dismissed by those in authority (parents, teachers or counsellors) while victims face backlash either by teachers, other students or the entire school. As a result, they are silenced and GBV remains invisible. There are very few incidents where victims were empowered by their teachers or parents.
2.1.10 In another example, a young person was groomed for sexual activity by an ustaz (religious teacher), but instead of acting against him, the police allowed the victim to be vilified and harassed by his family. Not only did they set the police on her but threatened to take legal action as well.
(d) Period spot-checking
2.1.11 Puteri revealed that period spot checks were not uncommon in schools. This represents a violation of the privacy, dignity and bodily autonomy of young girls by school authorities. Even when brought into the open, the schools do not acknowledge this as a problem.
(e) Domestic violence, child marriage, unwanted sex, unplanned multiple pregnancies, abuse
2.1.12 As a refugee, Haresa suffers additional trauma. She was trafficked and had money extorted from her by the traffickers even before reaching Malaysia. During her journey, she experienced attempted sexual assault. Porous borders between Thailand and Malaysia encourage these illegal routes for refugees and traffickers to carry out their trade.
2.1.13 Married as a child of 13 years, her case is typical of how poverty and culture compel such marriages. Parents see this as the only viable option because they do not have to worry about a daughter financially since after marriage she is seen as a husband’s ‘problem’ — it is his responsibility and that of his family to take care of her.
2.1.14 Being only 13 years old, Haresa did not comprehend what marriage was or what it entailed. It is pitiful to hear her say that on the day of her marriage everyone around her, especially her family members, were very happy. So, she was happy too. She had no idea about sex. It was a painful and uncomfortable experience, which she endured throughout her marriage because her husband demanded it. One consequence was early pregnancy. Haresa said she did not even recognise the signs when she was pregnant for the first time.
2.1.15 After coming to Malaysia, she remarried as her first husband had disappeared in Myanmar. She had more children and was blamed each time for getting pregnant, and abused by her second husband.
2.2 Rights violated/standards not adhered to
2.2.1 These Women’s Tribunal witnesses have been denied the right to equality, non-discrimination and equal protection of the law, as per the Federal Constitution’s article 8, and the right to legal remedy. Stalking victims are not protected under the law as stalking, even though likely widespread in Malaysia, is not a crime.
2.2.2 The women are also denied certain fundamental freedoms and rights guaranteed under the Federal Constitution, Part II, such as the right to equal protection of the law, freedom of expression, peace of mind, safety and security, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to be free from fear, the right to be treated with dignity, freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to mental and emotional health, the right to protection from sexual harassment, and the right to a harassment-free environment.
2.2.3 Standards under CEDAW are not adhered to. Articles 1 and 2 of CEDAW provide for equality and non-discrimination, and CEDAW’s General Recommendation (GR) 19 on VAW and GR 35 on GBV require the state to investigate and provide remedies for such violations. Para 29a of GR 35 says:
Ensure that all forms of gender-based violence against women in all spheres, which amount to a violation of their physical, sexual or psychological integrity, are criminalized and introduce, without delay, or strengthen, legal sanctions commensurate with the gravity of the offence, as well as civil remedies.
Standards provided in CEDAW’s GR 33 on access to justice are not met as well.
2.2.4 There is no refugee policy in Malaysia. Haresa’s case epitomises the dire situation of refugee women. Haresa has no means of survival and no access or right to reproductive services for spacing and timing of pregnancies. Hers is an example of combined historical discrimination and deprivation, and there is no policy to provide her with social and economic support in the country she has come to as a refugee. CEDAW’s GR 32 requires the protection of refugee women.
2.3 Failure of duty bearers
2.3.1 Stalking is a repeated and continuous assault that is not addressed in Malaysian law. Instead, violence in the Penal Code is regarded as a single incident or occurrence. Much advocacy on the need for stalking to be criminalised has been undertaken by activists since 2013 but policymakers remain apathetic. There is no sense of urgency to criminalise stalking.
2.3.2 There has been blatant police inaction despite Shakila lodging two reports of the harassment she endured on social media. She and her lawyer were told that her case of online harassment was not a criminal matter, and that they should send the case to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) instead. Besides not offering protection to the victim, the police blamed her for “being too outspoken on social media” and mocked her for uploading the videoclips.
2.3.3 Acting as judge and jury, the police denied Shakila and Alia the right to freedom of expression and participation in public life while giving impunity to their perpetrators.
2.3.4 There is no platform to raise the issue of violence in the public sphere and in schools. There is victim-blaming and backlash in schools where, as Puteri noted, the authorities (parents, teachers, counsellors) are more inclined to dismiss survivors who try to seek help. They would rather suppress the matter to protect the reputation of the school. In one case, a student who attempted rape was allowed to walk free even after a police report had been lodged against him.
2.4 Victim impact
2.4.1 Both the stalking and online harassment victims have not received any police protection.
2.4.2 Sofia stated that she lives in constant alert mode. She no longer maintains social media accounts for fear the perpetrator will find her online. The emotional and mental impact on her has been so severe that she feels her quality of life has completely deteriorated.
2.4.3 The public online harassment and attacks Shakila and Alia experienced were mostly meant to defame, discredit and shame them. These were aimed to put young women like them ‘in their place’ so they do not venture into public spaces, express political opinions and try to create change. Sofia, Shakila and Alia perpetually feel in danger, their mental health has been compromised, and they fear for the safety of their family members.
2.4.4 Refugees have no means of survival in Malaysia. As Haresa puts it:
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I feel stuck. I have no education and no skills. I can’t do anything here because Malaysia doesn’t accept refugees. Sometimes, I ask myself as to why I have suffered so much; why my life turned out this way. I keep asking these questions in my head. I think of my children and I don’t see a future for them either. This life with my husband isn’t my choice. I am trapped.
2.4.5 In schools where there is no platform to raise the issue of harassment, victims are silenced. They are additionally blamed by teachers, other students or the entire school. Some may never speak about their experience, not even to their parents. This usually results in perpetrators getting away with their actions.
The Government's role in addressing GBV is particularly crucial. It is the only body with the resources to effectively and continually address these issues across the country, and the only one with legitimacy to enforce the law. There are three major areas for reform.
3.1 Law and policy reform and law enforcement
3.1.1 A sexual harassment law must be speedily adopted.
3.1.2 Rape that happens in a marriage must be recognised in the law.
3.1.3 Police inaction when complaints of GBV are made must be curbed and action taken against police who are culpable.
3.1.4 Period spot-checks in schools must be prohibited.
3.1.5 The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development shall monitor schools that do not take action against reports of GBV, and hold these school authorities or education departments to account.
3.1.6 A refugee policy based on international standards must be adopted.
3.1.7 Stalking is not yet a crime in Malaysia. To protect against stalking, it must be listed as an offence in the Penal Code.
3.1.8 Perpetrators of gender-based online harassment get away with impunity because the existing legal framework does not adequately address this form of cybercrime. The MCMC should collaborate with the police to improve the technology to positively identify online perpetrators so that they can be prosecuted under criminal law and provide victims with protection.
3.1.9 CEDAW obligations must be comprehensively implemented.
3.1.10 Adequate data on the prevalence of all forms of GBV must be collected.
3.2 The Government, partnering with relevant stakeholders, should take steps to improve public attitudes and behaviours on GBV, including by conducting public education on the significance of freedom of expression as a principle of democracy.
3.2.1 According to the CEDAW Committee’s GR 35, the idea of male supremacy underpins the prevalence of GBV. Hence a consistent public awareness programme that aims to dismantle the patriarchal ideology of male superiority entrenching men in positions of power and control must be undertaken by the state and civil society, starting with schools. This is a long-term measure.
3.2.2 Comprehensive sexuality education in schools must be conducted: Extreme GBV is one of the most destructive consequences of misogyny, which is defined as the hatred of women. It starts as victim-blaming and allows sexism in schools. One way to address GBV and stop blaming women for it is by teaching comprehensive sexuality education in schools.
3.2.3 Comprehensive sexuality education emphasises the importance of communication and equality in healthy relationships. This can help create a culture where misogyny is not tolerated and where people are more inclined to intervene when they hear or see things like victim-blaming or misogyny. It also equips girls and young women with knowledge to make more informed decisions about marriage.
3.2.4 Teachers must be trained to conduct comprehensive sexuality education.
3.2.5 Given that the exercise of freedom of expression meets with a lot of public and State resistance, the Government must compel law enforcers to facilitate enjoyment to this constitutional guarantee.
3.3 The Government must adequately fund services to respond to GBV
3.3.1 The Government budget has generally not prioritised a GBV response. It must adequately fund services to do so. Overall, it should also adopt a gender-responsive budget process, as advocated by the Gender Budget Group, a coalition of 20 non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
 Up to the time of the Women’s Tribunal, Puteri had received 788 submissions and published 520 stories.
 A 2020 survey conducted by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and research firm Vase.ai revealed that 39 per cent of women had experienced stalking causing them fear.
 Kelvin Ayora (2014). “How Comprehensive Sex Ed Can Address Violence Against Women”. 6 October. Revised: 11 December 2018. Available at https://sexetc.org/info-center/post/comprehensive-sex-violence-against-women/.
 See Gender Budget Group (2021). “Applying a gender lens to Budget 2022”. The Star. 1 November. Available at https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/letters/2021/11/01/applying-a-gender-lens-to-budget-2022.