Must we wait for someone else to be beaten to death or set on fire before action is taken, asks Prema Devaraj.
Lai Siew Fong, a 36-year-old mother of two, lies in the intensive care unit at Hospital Pulau Pinang, suffering 60 per cent burns on her body. She was set on fire allegedly by her husband who is now being sought by the police.
Apparently she had previously made several police reports about the violence in the marriage (‘Peniaga kuih cedera parah dibakar suami’, mstar.com.my, 25 June 2013).
Several weeks ago, 28-year-old Nurhidayah A Ghani, a mother of four, who was in the process of divorcing her husband after 11 years in a violent marriage, ended up a domestic violence fatality (‘Mati dibelasah suami’, Mingguan Malaysia, 18 June 2013). She too had made several police reports over the violence she faced in her marriage. Her husband and three others have since been charged with murder.
One has to ask what is the duty of government agencies and personnel tasked in the prevention of domestic violence and the protection of victims when police reports regarding the violence are made? Could Nurhidayah or Siew Fong have been better protected?
In Malaysia, under the Domestic Violence Act 1994 (DVA) victims of domestic violence are meant to be able to get some form of protection under the law.
When abuse takes place, victims can lodge a police report and apply for an interim protection order (IPO). The alleged perpetrator is served with a copy of the IPO while investigations into the claims of domestic violence are carried out.
After the investigation, the IPO lapses and the alleged perpetrator is either charged or released. If he is charged (with an offence under the Penal Code) and convicted, he may have to serve some jail time or pay a fine or he could be released on a bond of good behaviour.
The woman can then apply for a Protection Order (PO) with conditions attached to ensure her safety from further abuse. If the abuser breaches either the IPO or PO, he can be charged with a crime and put behind bars. Technically speaking, that is.
Reality on the ground
The Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC) works with victims of domestic violence on a regular basis. A current case involves a mother of two children who has to date made 14 police reports over a period of almost 10 years against her violent husband.
Despite two convictions (the first conviction resulted in the perpetrator being released on a two- year bond of good behaviour and the second conviction resulted in him paying a fine), this man is still free to stalk, harass and abuse his wife, who incidentally is trying to divorce him. His latest threat is to splash acid on her. How will her story end?
The reality on the ground is that it is difficult to get protection despite the law in place. It would seem that many service providers tasked to help victims of domestic violence often do not seem to understand what domestic violence is about or the recurrent nature of the crime. It would appear that
- the difficulty of the victim in lodging report after report due to repeated incidents of violence
- the different forms of abuse of power and control exerted by the perpetrator
- the terror the victim lives under
- the impact on the children
- the protection needed by the victim which is available under the law
- the seriousness of the crime
and so on, often go unrecognised or are not understood by many service providers including the courts, which have the power to lock a perpetrator up!
It is even harder for women who are poor or who have children or elderly people who are dependent on them or who are financially dependent on their perpetrators or who live in rural areas where resources for such help are limited.
It is unclear whether agencies or their personnel involved in the protection of domestic violence victims are
- overwhelmed with their workload or
- are not sufficiently trained or
- are not interested in their area of work or worse,
- have little regard for victims of domestic violence.
Lack of enforcement a common problem
In an article in the UK Independent (‘IoS Christmas Appeal: Silent shame of domestic violence in Britain’, The Independent, 25 November 2012), the issue of poor enforcement of the law and the role of service providers in not providing adequate protection to victims of domestic violence was brought up when a victim was murdered by her husband.
Earlier this month, a coroner ruled that “serious and significant failings” by the police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) “possibly contributed” to Ms Akhtar’s death in September 2008 (see below for story). Every year, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) investigations show forces making the same mistakes, repeating failings in the most basic police duties. Amerdeep Somal, the IPCC’s commissioner in charge of gender abuse and domestic violence, apparently said: “Sadly, I have seen through my work that [police] protection is not always provided. It is a great scar on our collective conscience when a woman’s fears are not taken seriously and she is not given the protection that she deserves.
Sabina Akhtar’s story:
Sabina a 26-year-old woman had warned the police that her husband, Malik Mannan, 36, was planning to kill her two months before he burst into their Manchester home and stabbed her through the heart. She explained to officers in graphic detail how Mannan had assaulted her 25 times, throttling her and saying: “One day I will kill you.” But he was arrested and released without charge. After he repeatedly breached his bail conditions to threaten Ms Akhtar, she made a second terrified call to the police and he was re-arrested. Again he was questioned and released without charge. Four days later Ms Akhtar was dead……. The Independent, 25 November 2012
The frank appraisal of the IPCC police commissioner is something our local police, welfare officers and courts would do well to reflect upon. Time and again, complaints are made regarding poor enforcement of the law (‘Concern over effective implementation of Domestic Violence Act’, The Star, 27 December 2011).
So, what will it take for our country to have sufficient numbers of sensitised and trained service providers nationwide who are not only informed but also proactive about the domestic violence victims’ safety and rights?
State duty to exercise due diligence in protecting women against violence
According to the police, about 3,488 cases of domestic violence were reported last year (apparently only the tip of the iceberg), but how many reports resulted in perpetrators being charged and convicted?
What happened to all those women whose reports did not result in action being taken against the perpetrator? What recourse to safety do they have? Must we wait for someone else to be beaten to death or set on fire before action is taken?
It is the duty of the Malaysian government especially given national, regional and international commitments against violence against women, to exercise due diligence in the prevention of violence against women (VAW) including domestic violence, the protection of the victims, the punishment of perpetrators and the provision of just reparations to victims.
We ask simply this: if not now, then when?