Violence against Women
by Yu Ren Chung
Violence against women is a grievous form of gender discrimination. During this Women’s Tribunal, nine testimonies were shared, recounting violence against women. In this statement, I will briefly summarise the nine testimonies. Then, I will present seven insights illustrated by the testimonies. Lastly, I will present three recommendations.
(A) Key Points from Witness Testimonies
Alya (pseudonym) shared her experience of domestic violence in 2017, including physical violence and threats.
After divorcing her husband, the court granted her maintenance — but he only pays a fifth of his obligations.
Indira Gandhi experienced domestic violence from her then-husband.
He used Indira’s name to buy a car and defaulted on the loan. This affected her credit record.
He later assaulted Indira and her family, unilaterally converted their children to Islam, and sought custody of the children in Syariah court.
Sofia (pseudonym) was stalked for over two years — beginning in 2019 — by a former intimate partner.
The stalker repeatedly contacted her (sometimes more than 100 times a day) through calls, messages, and emails. He tracked her, choked her, and harassed her family and friends.
Sofia is perpetually in fear.
Siti Nur (pseudonym) — an engineer — experienced sexual harassment at work, between 2018 and 2020.
Misogynistic and sexual comments were regularly made in the company’s WhatsApp group chat. Her supervisor made comments about her marital status, and she was treated unfairly.
The experiences negatively impacted her mental and physical health.
Leslie (pseudonym) was sexually harassed at work.
As a sports coach, her supervisor repeatedly called her at night in 2016 and 2017, asked her to go to his home, and to sleep over. He harassed her family and friends.
Leslie felt forced to resign.
Leslie also freelanced, between 2016 and 2019.
Male colleagues regularly made sexual and derogatory comments about women. Leslie was repeatedly asked about her relationship status by married colleagues.
Alia Affendy experienced gender-based cyberharassment.
In 2020, Alia gave a speech at a public assembly. Without consent, someone recorded a video of her and shared it online.
Her private information was also shared. Messages targeting her physical appearance, and images depicting violence against her were sent to her and posted online.
Alia withdrew from online spaces.
Shakila Zen is an activist and social media professional. She has received numerous comments and messages that are threatening and demeaning — targeting her gender.
This year, Shakila made a video about environmental activism and democracy. Following this, she was sent a replica of a human hand and an acid attack threat.
She felt depressed and terrified.
Adelina Lisao was an Indonesian domestic worker, who was abused by her employer and eventually died as a result of the severe mistreatment.
Puteri Nuraaina Balqis compiled stories of harassment and abuse from girls, through an Instagram page.
A girl was stalked until her house by a male classmate, a girl was groomed by an ustazah, and many girls shared accounts of ‘period spot checks’.
These stories show that reports by girls are regularly dismissed, survivors face a backlash, and schools are not respectful of girls.
(B) Overview of Violence against Women in Malaysia
These testimonies illustrate what violence against women looks like in Malaysia. Seven insights from the testimonies are highlighted below.
(1) Various Forms of Gender-Based Violence Exist in Malaysia
The testimonies identify several forms of gender-based violence in Malaysia — including domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment, cyberharassment, gender-based harassment, assault, child-grooming, and physical abuse by an employer.
These experiences are not isolated. Recent studies on Malaysia estimate that:
(a) the prevalence rate for intimate partner violence against women ranges between 5% and 36%;
(b) 39% of women have experienced stalking, which caused them to feel fear;
(c) 36% of women have experienced sexual harassment; and
(d) 44% of women have witnessed a teacher make a sexual comment.
(2) Various Acts are Associated with Each Form of Violence
(a) Domestic violence includes physical and non-physical acts, and can happen during a relationship, and after the relationship ends.
(b) Stalking includes a series of acts — for example being repeatedly followed or contacted, and harassed.
(c) Sexual harassment includes receiving unwanted advances or inappropriate comments, and being in a hostile environment.
(d) Cyberharassment includes being contacted or mentioned online, with degrading and threatening messages, by one or many persons.
(3) Women Face Multiple Forms of Violence and Discrimination Simultaneously
The testimonies demonstrate how a woman experiencing gender-based violence faces multiple forms of violence and discrimination simultaneously.
(a) A woman experiencing domestic violence may face other forms of discrimination, which makes it harder for her to leave the abusive situation.
(b) Stalking may escalate to assault, or worse.
(c) A woman being sexually harassed may face discrimination, such as punishment or coercion.
(d) A girl student may be at risk of experiencing harassment, stalking, and abuse at school.
(4) Violence against Women has Severe Negative Impacts
(a) Violence against women can cause physical harm, and make survivors fearful and distressed.
(b) In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to death.
(c) Survivors may ideate or attempt suicide, and may lose focus on work and education.
(d) Dealing with violence — such as taking safety precautions and/or legal action — is draining. Survivors may be forced to leave employment or move homes.
(e) Violence against women can limit a survivor’s access to her family.
(f) Survivors may be forced to withdraw socially — physically and/or online — and may be discouraged from involvement in public and political activities.
Violence against women also results in negative societal outcomes — reduced well-being, lost productivity, and increased cost of social services.
(5) Violence against Women Occurs in All Spheres of Life
A woman or girl is at risk of violence at home, in school, at work, online, and in public spaces.
(6) Power and Control are Inseparable from Violence against Women
We see violence used to enforce power, as a means — to access a woman’s finances, coerce a woman to agree to sexual advances, and silence a woman with opposing political views.
But we also see power sought through violence, as an end — men committing violence to maintain power over a woman, or over women in general.
(7) How Violence against Women is Abetted
The testimonies show that violence against women is abetted by gaps in the law, weaknesses in law enforcement, and patriarchal public attitudes.
(a) Stalking is not yet a crime, so protection for stalking survivors is limited.
(b) Sexual harassment protections in employment law are weak. Additionally, a 2019 survey found that of those who experienced sexual harassment in Malaysia, only 24% experienced it at the workplace. The remaining cases happened at schools or universities, on public transport, in shopping malls, and in other places — and there are no laws on sexual harassment for these contexts.
(c) Weak enforcement of court orders — including on maintenance payments and custody / access to children — deny women their rights even after leaving an abusive marriage.
(d) The legal framework on the safety of domestic workers is almost non-existent.
(e) Schools are not safe for, or respectful of, girls.
(f) Several survivors sought help from authorities unsuccessfully and, worse, faced victim-blaming responses.
(g) Unsupportive employers, schools, and communities further victimise women and girls, which prevents them from getting help.
A recent survey shows public attitudes in Malaysia remain patriarchal — only half of Malaysians oppose violence-endorsing attitudes.
The Government has the resources needed to effectively address violence against women, and only the Government has the legitimacy to enforce laws.
I put forward the following three overarching recommendations to the Government.
(1) Adequately Fund Services to Respond to Violence against Women
The Government’s budget has generally not prioritised the issue of violence against women.
On a positive note, the two recent federal budgets included additional funding for shelter space, short-term contract social workers, and the police unit that handles violence against women.
However, the gap between needs and resource allocation remains striking. The Government must address a ten-fold shortage in domestic violence shelter space, a three-fold shortage in social workers, and large disparities of quality between One-Stop Crisis Centres (depending on the hospital).
As such, although the recent budget allocations are noteworthy, they must be scaled up significantly.
Additionally, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have recommended:
(a) specific funds for One-Stop Crisis Centres in public hospitals;
(b) a sustainable increase in the number of social workers;
(c) increased funds for training and management standards for frontline responders; and
(d) a crisis fund for services such as public and NGO hotlines during emergencies.
(2) Improve Laws and Public Policies
There are existing policies and institutions to address violence against women. Nonetheless — as the testimonies showed — there are many gaps in the policy framework.
The Government must improve laws and public policies, including passing the following law reforms without delay:
(a) A Sexual Harassment Bill that defines sexual harassment, sets out duties for all organisations, and establishes an oversight mechanism, among others;
(b) Legislation to make stalking an offence; and
(c) The Social Workers Profession Bill.
The Government should also:
(a) introduce specific laws and policies to ensure domestic workers’ safety;
(b) adopt a data strategy pertaining to violence against women;
(c) ensure the Jawatankuasa Menangani Keganasan Rumah Tangga (National Committee on Responding to Domestic Violence) publishes an annual report;
(d) update the inter-agency domestic violence guidelines, and create guidelines on violence against women for key institutions such as at Klinik Kesihatan (health clinics) and schools;
(e) prohibit all forms of ‘period spot checks’ in schools;
(f) extend the Domestic Violence Act to include non-married intimate partners; and
(g) abolish the exception that exempts husbands from the offence of rape.
These are only a few examples. The Government must have an overarching framework to review and monitor the policies on violence against women, following the framework of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
(3) Take Steps to Improve Public Attitudes on Violence against Women
There has been an increase in awareness initiatives on violence against women — including mass Short Message Service (SMS) messages, media announcements by government agencies, and social media posts.
However, there are no strategic and evidence-based efforts to change attitudes on violence against women — by the Government or other entities.
The Government should:
(a) collect and analyse population level data on the prevalence and attitudes on violence against women every three years;
(b) evaluate and improve existing training modules for enforcement agencies; and
(c) design and implement evidence-based public messaging campaigns to improve attitudes.
Nine testimonies that highlight issues of violence against women in Malaysia were shared at the Women’s Tribunal proceedings.
In all spheres of life, a woman is at risk of violence. Our public policy framework is inadequate, and societal attitudes enable violence against women.
I have highlighted three broad steps — which the Government, in particular, must take — towards ending violence against women in Malaysia.
If we do not end violence against women, women will continue to be barred from living a full life, on equal terms with men.
 Kadir Shahar, H., et al. “Prevalence of intimate partner violence in Malaysia and its associated factors: a systematic review”. BMC Public Health 20, 1550 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-09587-4.
 “Understanding Malaysians’ Experiences of Stalking”. Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Vase.ai. December 2020. https://wao.org.my/publications/understanding-malaysians-experiences-of-stalking/.
 “Over a third of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment”. YouGov. August 2019.
 “Sexual Harassment Survey: It’s 2021, But How Safe do Malaysian Women Feel?”. Centre for Governance and Political Studies (Cent-GPS) and All Women’s Action Society (AWAM). September 2021. https://centgps.com.my/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Sexual-Harassment-Survey-Results_Edited.pdf.
 “Over a third of Malaysian women have experienced sexual harassment”. YouGov. August 2019.
 "A Study on Malaysian Public Attitudes and Perceptions towards Violence Against Women (VAW)”. WAO. November 2021. https://wao.org.my/publications/waoagainstvaw/.
 “Budget 2022: A Resilient National Recovery for Women”. WAO. September 2021. https://wao.org.my/publications/budget-2022-a-resilient-national-recovery-for-women/.