Implement emergency response to domestic violence amid pandemic

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Photograph: Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas/Pexels

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) says this should be done alongside crisis and preparedness plans for Covid-19 and include six urgent actions it has proposed.

Covid-19 and the movement control order have led to a spike in domestic violence cases and disrupted normal response systems.

In light of this, we highlight some key challenges faced by domestic violence survivors during the movement control order and urge the government to take six urgent actions to address them.

This response should be coordinated by the National Domestic Violence Committee, a multi-stakeholder committee led by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

In Malaysia, Talian Kasih observed a 57% increase in calls. Although not all of these calls were related to domestic violence, it is likely that domestic violence is one factor contributing to this spike. Meanwhile, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) has observed a 44% increase in WAO hotline calls and WhatsApp enquiries from February to March 2020.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called on all governments to address violence against women in national preparedness and response plans for Covid-19.

Malaysia’s government must urgently kickstart our emergency response on domestic violence, for the duration of the movement control order. The National Domestic Violence Committee should convene (virtually) immediately, and as a starting point, take these six urgent actions.

1) Issue clear standard operating procedures for responding to domestic violence during movement control order

Domestic violence survivors face much uncertainty over how to obtain protection during the movement control order. For example, while some police stations have successfully carried out rescues of survivors from their abusive homes, there have been other cases where survivors were turned away at police stations and told to return after the movement control order.

The danger to survivors actually escalates the moment they try to leave, as this is when the abuser will go to great lengths to reestablish control. Hence, when survivors take the brave step of leaving the abuse, we must be ready to support and protect them. Turning them away at this critical point puts them in further immense danger.

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Therefore, we urge the government to issue clear standard operating procedures for responding to domestic violence during the movement control order and to ensure that these procedures are adhered to by all frontline officers.

2) Ensure that survivors can obtain interim and emergency protection orders

A police report by a survivor is often seen by the abuser as an act of defiance and a challenge to their sense of power and control. Emergency protection orders and interim protection orders are, therefore, critical mechanisms to protect survivors whose safety may be at increased risk once they have made a police report. These orders also serve as a warning to perpetrators that they are being monitored and must stop their acts of violence or risk being arrested and charged in court.

With reduced court operations, however, it is unclear how survivors are able to obtain court-issued interim protection orders. In light of this, we appeal to the courts to include applications for, and breach of, interim protection orders in their current list of essential services.

If survivors are, in fact, unable to obtain interim protection orders during the movement control order, there must be alternative arrangements in place. For example, survivors could instead be advised to obtain emergency protection orders, which are issued by the Social Welfare Department. Social Welfare Department officers must also be empowered and briefed on the importance of issuing emergency protection orders during this time. Although such orders last for only seven days, they can protect survivors from further abuse and even death.

3) Publicise support pathways for survivors

Under ordinary circumstances, leaving an abusive relationship is already a challenge. With the movement control order in place, survivors face even greater barriers to accessing their usual support systems. As a result, they may believe that escaping is simply not an option.

To assure survivors that they can still seek help, the government should do more public service announcements on the support services available to survivors and allay their concerns related to accessing these services. For example, some survivors may be fearful of accessing services at the one-stop crisis centres located in government hospitals amid Covid-19 related operations within the same hospital building

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4) Improve the availability of temporary shelters, make them an essential service

Also critical to breaking the cycle of domestic violence is ensuring survivors’ access to shelter. This demands urgent attention, as domestic violence shelters are sorely lacking in Malaysia. International best practices recommend a minimum of one family place in a women’s shelter per 10,000 people, but Malaysia only has an estimated one family place per 72,538 people.

The WAO runs the largest domestic violence shelter in Malaysia, but our shelter is currently at maximum capacity. Survivors have contacted the WAO, asking for shelter, and we have been unable to place them anywhere. Some survivors have resorted to sleeping in their cars, only to be caught by the police.

In these urgent times, we urge the government to set up temporary shelters in places such as hotels and hostels to accommodate the rising need for shelter. The government can also collaborate with the private sector in providing shelter.

Additionally, the government must also make shelters an essential service, as access to shelter can be a matter of life and death for survivors.

5) Ensure financial aid reaches domestic violence survivors

Survivors who are unable to work during the movement control order may become financially dependent on their abuser, making it even harder for them to leave. And for those who have left their abuser, loss of employment can cripple their efforts to get back on their feet. For these reasons, financial support for domestic violence survivors is critical.

Yet, the recently announced Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (National Caring Assistance), the bulk of which goes to households, does not reach domestic violence survivors who have no access to household finances or are in the process of getting a divorce.

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To ensure these benefits reach survivors, we recommend that the government allows survivors who would otherwise be ineligible to apply for these benefits with a supporting letter from a gazetted shelter or other designated organisation.

Additionally, the government must also make it clear in the Bantuan Prihatin National application process that either adult qualifies as the household representative.

6) Allocate sufficient resources to ensure effective emergency response

As with any systematic response, the government must deploy sufficient staff and financial resources to ensure that the emergency response for domestic violence is effective. For example, Talian Kasih must be resourced with adequate staff to manage the notable increase in calls. Some survivors have reported that they had not been able to reach through to call operators possibly due to the high volume of calls.

Additionally, the government should designate certain social welfare officers with the task of responding to domestic violence cases and relieve them from Covid-19-related aid distribution duties.

As the nation grapples with unpredictable times, we must be prepared to look out for those among us who are most at risk. We call on the government to urgently implement an emergency response to domestic violence, alongside crisis and preparedness plans for Covid-19 and include the six urgent actions proposed by the WAO.

In the same breath, we would also like to acknowledge the multiple efforts undertaken by the Ministry of Health, the Sexual, Women and Children’s Investigation Unit (D11) of the police, the Social Welfare Department, the Selangor state government and many other agencies and NGOs to mitigate the effects of violence on survivors during this time.

We also look forward to more conversations with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and other agencies on how we can collectively implement this emergency response.

To all survivors out there, you can call the 24-hour WAO Hotline at 03 7956 3488 or WhatsApp TINA at 018 9888 058 for support and assistance.

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