After close to two-years in the works, the Inter-Agency Working Together Document to handle domestic violence cases may finally see the light of day. The document has been drafted and next month, the secretary-generals of all ministries will meet to discuss the document before presenting it to the Cabinet.
“We will see what happens from there. We really hope it can be (presented to Cabinet by year end) but we have to wait and see,” said Women, Family and Community Development minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim on Tuesday after launching the Women’s Aid Organisation’s 2015 Case Studies in Domestic Violence Report, titled Working Together.
The Inter-Agency Document is a set of protocols that outlines the roles and responsibilities of all the relevant agencies that are involved in domestic violence cases. They include Rohani’s ministry, the social welfare department, the police, health ministry, courts, department of welfare development and community groups like WAO who are working with women who suffer violence.
Although the Domestic Violence Act (legislated in 1994) guarantees women protection from violence at home, the stark reality is that many women still find it hard to access their legal rights to protection and justice. Support and protection is elusive because of the gaps that exist in the system, says WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan.
According to the WAO report: “Implementing domestic violence laws and policies requires extensive government intervention. Collaboration between all stakeholders is critical for those laws and policies to be effectively and equally available to all women.
“Efforts to respond to domestic violence must be monitored regularly to ensure women have protection under the law and in reality.”
Statistics from the Women’s Development Research Centre (Kanita) in Universiti Sains Malaysia indicates that about 9% of women who are or have been in a relationship have experienced domestic violence at some point. This translates to a staggering estimate of 800,000 women in the country who have suffered or are likely suffering violence.
The need for a collaborative approach to end violence is one of the points highlighted in the WAO report.
The report – through case studies of women who have sought refuge and help from WAO, the Women’s Centre for Change in Penang, the Perak Women for Women Society and Virgine Good Shepard, Ipoh – highlights the best practices that have yielded positive results and also shortcomings in the current system that are preventing women from getting help.
“The report aims to enhance our understanding of what works and what doesn’t work in our efforts to improve the safety and well being of women and children who suffer abuse at home.
“These case studies are vital in giving women who have suffered violence a voice. The report presents their testimonies on their struggle to get protection and justice,” says Sumitra.
Support is crucial
Among the points highlighted in the report is the critical need for first respondents to support survivors of violence.
From the analysis of some 110 case studies, the WAO report finds that women who suffer violence are “heavily reliant” on the police for protection and support.
“Some 62% of the women surveyed sought help from the police before approaching anyone else. This shows that women recognise the police’s vital role in stopping perpetrators and believe that they can end the violence by holding perpetrators accountable,” says the report.
The case studies show that prompt and proactive responses from the police have had positive outcomes in ending the violence – some 70% of women who sought police help say they are satisfied with the services received.
However, there are also reports of negative experiences with police officers who failed to respond proactively and are not aware of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) and its provisions. Many are encouraged by the police to reconcile with their abusive spouses as they see domestic violence as a family matter.
“In the last year, we have seen improvement in the response from police especially those who are specially trained by the D11 (the sexual, women and child investigation division of Bukit Aman) unit.
“This clearly demonstrates the positive impact of specialised training. But there are instances when the response from police officers are not what it should be or according to what is legally mandated. We need a proper framework of response where individual officers can be made accountable for what they do and don’t do.
“Police officers also need to be gender aware and sensitive and their training must help them understand the challenges and barriers faced by women who come forward. One of the major challenges women face is that they are told to reconcile with their spouses or retract their reports,” says Sumitra.
The report recommends that the police train frontline officers in handling domestic violence cases. All frontline officers, the report urges, must be familiar with the Domestic Violence Act and be aware that protection of the victims are paramount domestic violence cases.
Another critical area the report highlights is the need for safe alternatives for women who have made the bold move to get away from their abusive partners. They need refuge for themselves and their children.
Currently, only a few hundred women are able to seek refuge at the 42 shelters gazetted by the government. Of the 42, 34 shelters are run by the government. However, these shelters house only an average of 32 domestic violence survivors each year. This is in sharp contrast to WAO’s own shelters which often function at full capacity, sheltering about 100 survivors each year.
Rohani, when asked to explain the disparity, explained that many women are daunted by the government shelters which have to follow “strict government protocols”.
Sumitra says there must be specialised shelters for survivors of domestic violence.
“As far as we know, there are no government shelters specifically for women who are survivors of domestic violence. Their shelters are for all women who need refuge. But from our experience, domestic violence survivors have very specific needs that go beyond crisis intervention.
“Women survivors of domestic violence need rehabilitation… they need to learn how to re-enter society again. If there isn’t this support, many will fear homelessness and may end up going back to their abusive relationships,” says Sumitra who has offered WAO’s experience in running shelters to help the government revamp their shelter set-up.
While not every survivor needs shelter, Kanita’s study Executive Report, Summary of Findings: A Country-Level Study of Women’s Well-Being and Domestic Violence Against Women suggests that the needs of those who need shelter are not being met.
Currently, WAO is the largest government-gazetted shelter provider with three shelters in undisclosed locations.
The report also calls for the definition of domestic violence in section 2 of the Domestic Violence Act to include stalking. According to the report, nine out of 34 of the cases documented had elements of stalking, demonstrating a strong link between stalking and other forms of domestic violence.
“Recognising stalking in domestic violence cases and intervening can prevent further abuse and even death,” the report states.
It also calls for the inclusion of abuse between intimate partners who are not married to come under the DVA, highlighting international best practices that invalid intimate partners under the DVA.
“Domestic Violence is characterised by repetitive violence, power imbalance and control by the perpetrator over the survivor. These characteristics can be present in violence between intimate partners who are not married.
“Out of the 110 domestic violence survivors who sought shelter with WAO in 2014, five women were abused by the boyfriends and the same number by their parent, sibling or other family members which are covered by the DVA,” the report said.