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Lilian Kok of AWAM Malaysia talks about society's deep-seated issues when it comes to gender-based violence and why it continues to this day

From domestic abuse, economic violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, coercion, cyber violence, female genital mutilation, honour killing, infanticide, forced unions and child marriages, to human trafficking—these deplorable acts don’t just happen behind closed doors but in broad daylight as well.

While gender-based violence (GBV) can happen to anyone, the majority who survive these cases are women and young girls. According to data accrued by the Lancet, more than a third of women and girls—over one billion people—experience intimate partner violence or non-partner physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. The article also states that though the ‘lifetime prevalence of childhood sexual abuse is unacceptably high for both sexes’, it was still more frequent for girls than boys.

See also: “How I Moved on From Domestic Abuse and What You Should Know About This Issue”

In Malaysia, as tensions rose during the height of Covid-19, so did the cases for GBV and domestic abuse. Based on an article published by The Star, in 2021 alone, a whopping total of 7,468 domestic violence cases were reported to the police—a 42 per cent increase from 2020, which saw 5,260 cases.

Regardless of the welfare organisations that sought to aid survivors and the various policies that criminalise GBV, including the Domestic Violence (Amendment) Act 2017, the high number of cases are a clear indicator that it was an epidemic left unchecked. Covid-19 or otherwise, based on a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the factors behind the increased number of cases are socio-ecological. One of them were the cultural and societal norms that instilled a ‘sense of shame associated with being a victim of violence’, which discourages survivors from reporting the case or seeking help.

Lilian Kok, programme officer of All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), a non-profit that addresses GBV and runs the Telenita helpline which provides legal advice and counselling services to survivors, says it should be otherwise.

“It is Malaysia’s patriarchal cultural practices that are the root causes of GBV. The power imbalance between men and women is still evident in our society, whether it is healthcare, legislation, the workplace or even within families—it creates a barrier that doesn’t allow for the public to better understand the issue. It doesn’t help that we’re still expected to enact traditional gender roles.

“This makes it challenging for legislators and civil society organisations to tackle GBV effectively. In 2021, research on the Malaysian public’s attitudes and perceptions towards violence against women revealed that more than half of the Malaysian populace opposed violence-endorsing attitudes. However, 43 per cent of respondents believe that a woman can make a man so angry that he hits her, even when he didn’t mean to. On the other hand, 26.5 per cent of Malaysians  believe that domestic violence is forgivable if the perpetrator is so angry that they lose control. Meanwhile, in the context of rape, 51.3 per cent believe that rape happens because of how women dress.”

See also: Sumitra Visvanathan Of WAO: Tackling Rising Domestic Abuse In Malaysia During Lockdown

According to Kok, patrilineal societies like Malaysia perpetuate victim blaming and the stigmatisation of survivors. Last year, an online article on the emotional impact of sexual harassment survivors was taken down, as it cited that factors such as ‘physical attractiveness’, ‘charming personality’ and ‘sexy body shape’ were what ‘invites’ unwanted sexual attention from men.

Additionally, GBV doesn’t just affect its survivors, but their community and country too. In 2016, the global economic cost of such violence was at an estimate of US$1.5 trillion, which is approximately the size of Canada’s economy as death, absenteeism and the loss of productivity can impact businesses and organisations. For children exposed to GBV, their educational attainment, employment and wellbeing would be compromised as well.

“We need to talk about these things instead of glossing them over or denying the severity of the matter,” says Kok. “Survivors don’t need unsolicited marriage advice. They shouldn’t be told to marry their rapists, nor should they be told that it’s just a ‘family matter’. They need you to believe them when they ask for help, to listen without judgment and support them when they file a report or seek counsel. Lastly, know that our doors are always open for [survivors], don’t be afraid to reach out to us if you have nowhere else to go."

Telenita Helpline (Monday-Friday, 930am-5.30pm) +6016 237 4221 or +6016 238 4221. For a directory of service providers including legal aid and crisis centres, click here

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