Women's rights activists are pushing for domestic violence to be included in the National Health and Morbidity Survey to enable policy makers and advocates access to accurate and critical information about the prevalence of domestic abuse in the country.
In a statement released yesterday, Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) said that as a "serious public health concern", that is associated with other negative health conditions, domestic violence affects hundreds of thousands of Malaysian women.
Unfortunately, data on domestic violence in Malaysia is piecemeal which makes it difficult for policy makers and advocates for law reform to understand the full scale of domestic violence in Malaysia or the trends around its impact on communities.
"Including domestic violence in the current and subsequent cycles of the National Health and Morbidity Survey is a straightforward way of gathering the critical information we need to tackle domestic violence as a public health issue.
"Without an understanding of the full scale of domestic violence in Malaysia, and the trends around its impact on various communities, our response will remain piecemeal," WAO said in its statement.
According to the NGO, more survivors seek help from hospitals and clinics compared to any other service provider – including the police, welfare, and NGOs.
"Despite this, we lack reliable and consistent data on domestic violence in Malaysia. Has domestic violence prevalence increased or decreased over time? Which groups of women are most susceptible? How has the public understanding of domestic violence changed over time? We don’t really know. And without this information, we cannot formulate and evaluate policies effectively." it said in the statement.To fill this gap, the group said, questions on domestic violence must be included in the National Health and Morbidity Survey (NHMS).
Last week, the Ministry of Health published the latest NHMS 2019 results. The NHMS is a series of nationally representative surveys that collects health information from Malaysians.The surveys are done periodically, and cover various themes. The results are used to improve healthcare policies and services.
"For example, the NHMS 2019 focused on non-communicable diseases, and involved 33,000 adult and child respondents. The survey found that close to one in five adults in Malaysia have diabetes, and half of these individuals have never been diagnosed or even screened for the disease.
"This information not only alerts policymakers to a critical health issue and allows them to take appropriate action, but also empowers individuals to make better decisions about their own health. And because this data is collected regularly, policymakers can better plan and evaluate policies.
"Including domestic violence in subsequent surveys would similarly help policymakers and individuals make better decisions to respond to domestic violence," the group iterated in its statement.
To date, there has only been one comprehensive study on the prevalence of domestic violence in Malaysia – published in 2014 by University Sains Malaysia (USM) researchers. This study found that 9% of ever-partnered women in Peninsular Malaysia have been abused by a partner.
This study – though instrumental – was one-off, and therefore does not establish wider trends and patterns. The study also did not cover Sabah and Sarawak.
"The police, welfare department, and the Ministry of Health respectively compile data on domestic violence cases that they handle. However, this data tells us only the number of reported cases of domestic violence, but not the overall proportion of the population who has experienced it, meaning we can gather little about trends and policy effectiveness. For example, if the number of cases reported to the Ministry of Health increases, does this reflect an increase in domestic violence, or more awareness to get help?
"If we collect domestic violence prevalence data through the NHMS, we could answer these questions – and design better policies. For instance, if we learned that certain groups of women were more susceptible to domestic violence, or what the age range was during which a majority of women experienced domestic violence, we could design more targeted interventions," it added.
The National Committee on Domestic Violence – a multi-stakeholder committee chaired by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development – had in 2019 identified the lack of data on domestic violence prevalence as a key barrier to evidence-based policymaking. The Committee recommended including domestic violence in the NHMS.
Domestic violence can result in physical injuries, including fatal ones. Worldwide, 58% of female homicide victims were killed by their intimate partners or family members, according to a 2018 United Nations report.
Additionally, according to the World Health Organisation, women who are abused have a higher risk of AIDS, STIs, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts, and other health conditions as compared to women who are not abused. Thus, preventing and effectively addressing domestic violence also helps reduce other illnesses – and in turn, alleviates the burden on the healthcare system.