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Friday December 20, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday December 20, 2013 MYT 8:47:54 AM
by s. indramalar
Domestic violence is not a private matter but an issue that concerns everyone.
A recent roundtable brought representatives from the government, the police and non-governmental organisations together to discuss integrated strategies in tackling domestic violence.
DOMESTIC violence is often perceived as a private family matter that should be dealt within the confines of one’s home.
This, however, could not be further from the truth.
Family violence is a complex, multi-faceted social problem that affects society’s framework. If families are the foundation of society, then domestic violence is a threat to its stability and needs to be addressed.
In Malaysia, there are many agencies involved in dealing with domestic abuse: welfare workers in both the government and non-governmental sectors work to protect and counsel victims of abuse, police and law enforcement officers are charged with protecting victims and apprehending and prosecuting perpetrators of abuse while doctors and medical professionals lend medical expertise in treating the physical, emotional and psychological wounds of both the victim and perpetrator.
The Domestic Violence Act (1994) has provided some amount of protection for victims of domestic violence who are largely women and children.
But there have been structural weaknesses in the implementation of the Act which the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality’s (JAG) committee has outlined in their periodical reports which are based on their on-the-ground work with victims of domestic violence.
While there have been successful initiatives to help victims of violence and prosecute abusers, these have largely been carried out in isolation. Collaborative projects have been largely piecemeal and short term.
To address this gap, JAG recently organised a multi-stakeholder roundtable on domestic violence to bring together the various agencies involved to establish an integrated response to domestic violence in Malaysia. The roundtable was attended by representatives from JAG, the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry and the police.
JAG comprises eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs), namely Women’s Aid Organisation, Sisters in Islam, the All Women’s Action Society, Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower), Women’s Centre for Change, Penang (WCC), Perak Women for Women Society, Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group and Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Malaysia.
The Singapore experience
At the roundtable, a representative from the Ministry of Social and Family Development of Singapore presented the country’s inter-agency approach in tackling family violence which has yielded positive results.
Heather Ong, who is the assistant director of the Family, Child Protection and Welfare branch of the ministry shared how a collaborative approach between the ministry (the lead agency coordinating and funding programmes against domestic violence), the police, healthcare professionals and social service providers has resulted in a system that works to the benefit of not only the victims of abuse but also their families and society at large.
“Why do we need a collaborative practice? Family violence cases are very complex. We are dealing with raw emotions. And sometimes, the victims and their families do not want help. If we do not work together, how are we going to help them? We need many experts working together to assess, intervene, enforce and prosecute. It is very difficult for a police officer to provide counselling or to intervene.
“It is sometimes impossible for a social worker to ensure enforcement or get a personal protection order issues. That is why we need to work together,” she stressed.
She added that while government policies and legislation provide the framework for operation, it was their inter-agency coordination and communication that have enabled the policies to be carried out effectively.
“We call it the ‘many helping hands approach’. A key component of this is the Family Violence Dialogue Group which is headed jointly by the ministry and the Singapore Police Force. The group comprises the family court, the Singapore Prisons Service, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, the National Council of Social Service and various (non-governmental) social service agencies. The group is where the various agencies sit together to set strategic policy frameworks as well as measures to enhance the services to families affected by violence,” she said.
Because the core group is represented by all agencies involved, all decisions are jointly made and agreed upon by all parties, stressed Ong.
Under this core group comes various other working groups (represented by various agencies) to implement programmes that not only help the victims of abuse and empower them but also to prosecute and rehabilitate the perpetrators.
Mandatory counselling is court-ordered not only for the victims but their families as well. They talk to the victims about making safety plans, understanding the impact and cycle of violence as well as how to break the cycle. Perpetrators are also counselled and taught anger and conflict management skills, among other things. The public is also educated on their rights.
A step in the right direction
For WAO executive director Ivy Josiah, the roundtable is a positive step towards establishing an integrated approach in dealing with domestic violence in Malaysia.
“It was a positive space where all the relevant agencies expressed the want to work together to improve our response to domestic violence. The briefing by Heather was both an eye opener and a re-affirmation.
“It was an eye opener because these multi-agency committees across the island (Singapore) are led by the police and ministry and they meet on a regular basis to monitor, review and respond to violence in the family. Women’s groups in Malaysia have been advocating an integrated approach for years and we see through the Singapore model, that this can truly work,” says Josiah.
Meera Samanther, who is president of the Association of Women Lawyers, says she was impressed not only by how the Singapore authorities and the social service agencies work together seamlessly but also at the amount of funding NGOs get from the government to run their joint programmes.
“The government and the various agencies don’t just have an ad-hoc relationship. They work together and view domestic violence as their collective issue. We do have collaborations here but they are largely piecemeal and there is no real commitment to see things through because these collaborations are not institutionalised.
“Another striking point was how the Singapore government funds up to 80% of the services run by agencies and voluntary organisations. For us, it is a constant struggle for women’s organisations to raise funds. We have to constantly worry about it and work hard to ensure we have funds and don’t have a crisis where we don’t have enough funds to hire social workers. Just because we are an NGO, it doesn’t mean we have to pay our social workers poorly. They are professionals and if we pay appropriately, we will get the best. Any job well done must be remunerated,” says Samanther.
She clarified that the aim of the session was not to point fingers at any one party but to build a lasting relationship between all agencies.
“We need to come together and realise that domestic violence is everyone’s problem. It can happen to anyone and if we don’t work together, everyone loses,” she says.
While Women, Family and Community Development undersecretary (policy division) Dr Waitchalla Suppiah could not be reached for comment, Josiah said that there were positive outcomes from the roundtable. One of the first calls to action is the drafting of a set of guidelines by the ministry, entitled "Working Together", which will outline the roles of the various agencies that respond to domestic violence.
“We will work with the ministry to ensure that the working together document, which specifies the specific roles and responsibilities of every agency is outlined by January next year. We will also follow up with the ministry, the police and the attorney general’s chambers and keep this issue alive. Domestic violence response has to be dramatically improved if we want to save lives,” she said.
Tackling domestic violence
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Women, Domestic Violence, Women
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