Allegations of sexual abuse of Penan women, children: Shameful silence

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A national taskforce set up last year to probe these allegations produced a report in December 2008 – but its findings have not been made public.

In September 2008, a huge public outcry greeted the allegations of sexual abuse of Penan women and children in Sarawak. The uproar resulted in the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry setting up a national taskforce to probe these allegations amidst the vehement denials (and counter-accusations of NGO instigation) by Sarawak officials and the police.

The taskforce investigation produced a report in December 2008 which was subsequently submitted and discussed by the Cabinet in May 2009. Since then, interested parties have been informed that if they want to know the contents of the report, they should contact the ministry directly.

It is a shame that the ministry has taken this stand. The government has a responsibility to disclose the taskforce report findings to the public given that the taskforce was formed mainly due to public instigation and that the investigation was carried out using public funds. The public has a right to know the outcome of the investigation and what the government plans to do with the information in the report. The delay in making the findings public suggests that there is something to hide.

While gender violence occurs everywhere in the world, the context within the interiors of Sarawak also involves a combination of the non-recognition of native customary land rights and the promotion of a model of development which places profits before people. The indigenous peoples are thus exposed to exploitation on many levels. The remoteness of the interior and the isolation of the communities, together with the poverty levels, make it extremely difficult for communities to access help.

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Sources say that government funds have since been committed to address the issue of sexual abuse among the indigenous population in Sarawak. If there is to be meaningful effect, there must also be a review of the native customary land rights to recognise the landownership/stewardship of indigenous communities and a complete reassessment of the current concept of ‘development’ for indigenous peoples in the country. The first step in sincerity would be to make public the outcome of the taskforce investigation.

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