In April 2023, a housewife in her 20s was choked to death by her 30-something-year-old restaurant-worker husband, following a heated argument at their rented room in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. He subsequently tried to take his own life and was put under police watch at the hospital. This was just one of the many cases of intimate-partner violence reported in the media this year.
In May, a man in Kota Kinabalu was detained for the murder of his ex-fiancee. He allegedly stabbed her eight times after she refused to reconcile with him.
A month later, in June, a shop assistant was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend in Ipoh, Perak. He admitted to hitting the 24-year-old woman during a fight.
In July, a 42-year-old single mother in Kota Baru, Kelantan was stabbed to death by her ex-husband. The man has been arrested and the police are investigating the case under Section 302 of the Penal Code for murder.
In August, a businessman was charged for the murder of his 38-year-old wife. The woman, believed to have been beaten, was reported to have died while seeking treatment at a hospital in Kajang, Selangor.
For each of these reported cases of intimate partner violence, there are many that go unreported, notes Women’s Centre for Change programme director Karen Lai.
Intimate partner violence, according to a study by BMC Public (Health Prevalence Of Intimate Partner Violence In Malaysia And Its Associated Factors: A Systematic Review, 2020), is “any behaviour within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological or sexual harm to those in the relationship. It is an important public health problem with substantial consequences on physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health”.
An intimate partner is “a person with whom an individual has a close relationship which may be characterised by any of the following: emotional connectedness, regular contact, ongoing physical contact and sexual behaviour, identity as a couple, with familiarity and knowledge about each other’s lives. Intimate partner relationships include current or former spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends and ongoing sexual partners”.
Intimate partner violence includes, but is not limited to, domestic violence, highlights Lai.
“In Malaysia, domestic violence is defined as violence perpetrated against a spouse, former spouse, child, member of the family (including incapacitated adults), and currently, only married intimate partners are covered under the Domestic Violence Act,” she says.
Unfortunately, unmarried intimate partners are not covered under the Act, she adds.
There is also not much data available on unmarried intimate partner violence. But PDRM statistics on domestic (married partner) violence for the last 10 years show a general increase during Covid-19, with the average over 5,000 cases per year pre-Covid, spiking to 7,468 in 2021 and 6,540 in 2022.
Gender-based violence is a social problem and can lead to femicide (gender-related killings) which are described by UN Woman as “the most brutal and extreme manifestation of violence against women and girls”.
“Despite decades of activism from women’s rights organisations as well as growing awareness and action, the available evidence shows that progress in stopping such violence has been deeply inadequate,” said UN Woman in an online post in conjunction with the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Nov 25 to Dec 10).
“Femicide happens mainly because of the patriarchal society we live in,” says lawyer Rachel Suppiah, who has handled many divorce and domestic violence cases.
“Intimate partner violence (a type of femicide) not only happens in Malaysia, but also globally in other communities where men take out their anger on their wives, girlfriends or female relatives.
“In some Latin American communities, for example, gender based violence stems from the belief that men are superior to women instead of being equals,” adds Suppiah.
“In olden times, the patriarchal role of providing for women was the norm – men were seen as providers and hunters while women were gatherers who stayed at home and looked after the family/children, but the concept has sadly resulted in certain societies believing that men are superior and women aren’t seen as equals,” she says.
“And, while there are a lot of good men out there, there are unfortunately some who are abusive to their wives. They may appear to be the best citizen to society – the most polite co-worker, or best father in public – but when it comes to being a husband, they can be most violent to their wife,” she adds.
Intimate partner violence can be a very sensitive issue, says Suppiah.
“Lack of awareness and education on women’s human rights may lead to it. It’s also upbringing because some of these men grew up in households where they saw their fathers beating their mothers, and they thought it was ‘normal’,” she says.
She adds that from her personal observations, “most of the time, there have been prolonged incidents of violence and it builds up till one day, he kills her. Then, there are cases where it’s a crime of passion due to jealousy and/or infidelity too”.
One of the roadblocks to recourse is that the women don’t report or don’t want to proceed with legal action, says Suppiah.
“Each circumstance is different, but usually, it’s because they don’t want to create problems in the family, are worried about the family name and being embarrassed, or they still love the husband or ‘he’s the father of my children so I can’t put him in jail’,” she explains.
“Sometimes, they don’t want to pursue the matter because they fear repercussions – ‘if he is fined and jailed, then later released, there is a possibility he might retaliate’.”
But if a woman fears for her life, there are steps that she can take, says Suppiah.
“When there is enough evidence to show a violent crime has happened, she can take action. The police will get involved, an arrest can be made, and the perpetrator can be put on remand,” she explains.
“It all starts with education and awareness, letting women know what their rights are and how to protect themselves. If you fear criminal violence, there are people who can help you such as women’s NGOs and members of the police force. But the woman herself must decide she wants to be helped,” she adds.
Lai agrees that sometimes, a survivor doesn’t want to report the abuse because she doesn’t want her husband to be jailed.
However, while this can be frustrating for the people trying to help her, including the police, lawyers, etc, the reality is that it can be difficult for survivors to leave an abusive relationship, or even report the abuse or continue with legal proceedings, she says.
Most of the reasons a woman doesn’t report abuse or doesn’t proceed with the case, are rooted in gender inequality.
“The fear of retaliation by the abuser is a major factor, especially if there are threats of death or physical violence involved. They fear for their lives when that happens.
“Then, they are financially dependent on the abuser. Some women aren’t economically independent; perhaps they’ve left the workforce and have been a housewife with no income for some time, and find it difficult to return to the workplace.”
“They are financially already at a disadvantage, and even more so if there are children involved – how are they going to support their children if they leave or if the husband is arrested?
“There is also the stigma due to gender and cultural stereotypes about women having to be submissive, patient, and put up with the abuse.
“Some survivors also form a trauma bond with their abusers. They develop it as a coping mechanism because they’ve internalised the vicious cycle of power and control. Outsiders who are trying to help them may not be able to understand this,” says Lai.
It is a very difficult process for survivors to go through, she says.
At the end of the day, survivors just want the violence to end. They don’t necessarily want to see the offenders in jail, she adds.
And, it is important to respect the survivors’ choices.
“Not everyone who faces domestic violence is physically, emotionally, financially or socially ready to move on from the abuser. A simple example is where there is no external support for her to cope.
“They might have family members who are not only unsupportive but against the end of that marriage. They may not have a network of friends or a job with a stable income.
“So, to push them forward when they don’t have any other options can be a terrifying prospect for them,” explains Lai.
To support survivors, advocates (be it NGOs, lawyers, the police, family or friends) have to understand where they come from and be very patient.
“Survivors are moving according to their level of readiness, and not necessarily according to other people’s perceptions,” she says.
Creating awareness and educating people on the harmful affects of intimate partner violence can help address or maybe even prevent violence.
It is important to create awareness of laws, such as the Domestic Violence Act, in order to help survivors of domestic violence and possibly prevent a case of femicide from happening.
For intimate partner violence (involving those who aren’t married), there are other laws including the Penal Code Section 352 on Assault, says Suppiah.
“Basically, if he threatens to intimidate her or to beat her up, there are sections in the Penal Code for criminal intimidation, domestic violence, and assault and battery.”
“There are many NGOs out there who are willing to help. There are also lawyers who are willing to help on a pro bono basis if necessary. And there are a lot of members of PDRM who are willing to help take the matter further,” she says.
Lai says that the role of the police is to enforce and uphold the law.
“They are the law enforcement arm of the government so it’s important they take each complaint of abuse seriously and not attempt to play mediator or judge, which may be well-intentioned but isn’t their role and might make things worse for the survivor.
“If they attempt to bring the couple together to try and get them to go for counselling, or if they try to resolve it through less formal means (by persuading the victim that it’s ‘just a domestic issue’), it might not be helpful because we don’t know what’s actually going on in the home.
“The abuser can very easily put up a front in front of the police officer, and the survivor, in the presence of the abuser, can become completely intimidated.
“So we urge the police to play their role accordingly. They need to investigate the crime, gather the best possible evidence, and provide the necessary protection to the survivor.”
Lai adds that furthermore, the police need to understand that the Domestic Violence Act now covers psychological violence:
“The police need to take into consideration that psychological violence is now an actionable crime, and although there may be no visible physical bruises or wounds, this has to be investigated as well.
“It’s not just looking for signs of physical harm, but also ensuring that investigations are done and survivors are protected from all kinds of harm, including psychological harm too,” she concludes.