Denial of justice to rape survivors doomed to continue

Today on Nov 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we join advocates around the world in calling attention to the systematic violations of women’s rights, particularly through crimes of sexual violence.

In Malaysia, the rapes of Penan women and children in Sarawak serves as a horrific reminder of the severity of the crisis of escalating rates of violence against women, and equally important, the persistent inadequacies of our criminal justice system in securing relief for survivors of sexual crimes.

Since the mid-’80s, laws related to rape have seen various amendments to bring justice to survivors of rape. However, the recent statement from the police that the investigations into the rapes of Penan women are now closed, exposes the stark reality of how difficult it is to access justice from the criminal justice system, more so for marginalised communities.

We are aware of the difficulties of bringing criminal cases to trial. However, the difficulties in cases of rape are particularly pronounced. According to Bukit Aman, approximately less than 15% of reported sexual crimes in 2008 were brought to trial. A contributing factor is the ‘victim blaming’ attitude for rape and other sexual crimes.

The Women’s Centre for Change recently published their 2005 study ‘Seeking Justice for Vicitms of Sexual Crime’ which showed among other things that entrenched patriarchal views within the criminal justice system negatively affect the outcome of rape trials.

For instance, a frequent and effective defence tactic is to question the credibility of the survivor. Underpinning this is the false assumption that women lie about sexual assault and therefore, cannot be trusted. However, many studies have shown that very few rape cases are falsely reported.

Both attitudinal and structural factors stack the odds against survivors every step of the way in the courts – first, in getting a case to trial, second, in getting a hearing free of stereotypical prejudices, and finally, getting a conviction.

The shockingly poor conviction rates of sexual crimes is shown in the aforementioned WCC study of 439 cases between 2000 and 2004 in subordinate courts in Penang. It was found that only 4% of sexual crimes cases that went to trial resulted in a conviction. This only cements the fact that when it comes to sexual crimes including rape, accessing justice is most difficult.

How accessible was the justice system to the Penan rape survivors, both literally in terms of the distance to the police stations, magistrates etc, and culturally, in terms of the historical mistrust of authorities and the language barriers?

If rape survivors in urban cities such as Penang and Kuala Lumpur face daunting obstacles in seeing through their cases, what more indigenous women located on the margins of power centres and caught up in corporate capitalist/state interests in so-called ‘development’?

The fact that the police investigations have closed without any perpetrator being charged does not mean that these crimes have not been committed. Rather, it is an indictment of the criminal justice system that has failed to protect and uphold the rights of the most vulnerable.

Until steps are taken such as better inter-agency cooperation and more allocation of resources and sensitivity training for judiciary and prosecutors, the denial of justice to rape survivors is doomed to continue.

What now for Malaysians who believe in justice, equality and the need to end violence against women?

The writer is president, All Women’s Action Society (Awam). The above is a joint letter together with Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), the Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) and Sisters in Islam.


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