Lara moved out of her house because she feared for her life. She had lodged 23 police reports but it didn’t stop her abusive ex-husband from coming after her. He stalked her relentlessly.
Her worst fears came true one day. As she was leaving work, his friends attacked her. Her colleagues found her in a pool of blood at the office car park. Lara was in so much pain, she begged the doctor to let her die.
It felt like she could never be free from her husband’s abuse. Lara shared other incidences of his stalkings.
One day, she noticed two men taking photos of her house and children. She immediately knew they were sent by her husband.
“I started shaking uncontrollably. I picked up my children and walked to the police station to lodge another report. I told the officer that if anything were to happen to me or my children, it was my ex-husband (who was responsible),” says Lara.
Unfortunately that report, like the ones made prior to that, could not protect her. Her ex-husband was keeping tabs on her but he had not harmed her physically, so there was no basis for the police to act against him.
Stalking – repeated and unwanted acts such as trailing, shadowing, tracking someone down and/or harassing them with unwanted attention, including on social media, causing them alarm or distress – is not a crime in Malaysia, and so victims like Lara will not get protection even though they feel threatened or know from past experiences that it could lead to physical harm.
Activists working with victims of violence in Malaysia are advocating for stalking to be recognised as a crime so that action can be taken before it leads to further harm. They also want all forms of stalking to be recognised, including cyber stalking which is even more pervasive and invasive.
“We need to define and criminalise stalking in the Penal Code and amend the Domestic Violence Act to recognise stalking as a form of domestic violence. More than that, we need law enforcers to understand what stalking is and how to implement and apply the law to protect victims.
Enforcement should not have to wait for further damage or violence to be caused. Stalking itself should be a crime,” says Women’s Centre for Change’s senior advocacy officer, Melissa Mohd Akhir.
Last October, Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim pledged to include stalking as a form of domestic abuse in the amendments to the Domestic Violence Act (1994).
The Joint Action Group (JAG) for gender equality, a coalition of 12 women’s groups in the country, is counting on the minister to follow through on her pledge.
JAG has been working with the Attorney General’s Chambers and the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus since 2013 to lobby for stalking to be included in the Penal Code.
A draft bill has already been prepared but so far there has been no follow through.
“It is crucial that the stalking amendment is not dropped. We urgently need laws to protect against stalking, especially in domestic violence cases.
“Stalking is widespread in Malaysia. It is harmful and current laws we have are inadequate to protect victims,” says Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) advocacy officer Yu Ren Chung.
Malaysia was the first country in the Asia Pacific region to pass a specific law to recognise domestic violence as a crime when the Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1994.
The Act recognises domestic violence as an issue of public concern and guarantees remedies such as Protection Orders (PO) and spells out the responsibilities of the police and enforcement officers in protecting victims.
POs are crucial as they prohibit the perpetrators from carrying out acts of violence or even harassing their victims. They face arrest if they violate these orders.
More importantly, the POs assure women that they will be protected. If effectively enforced, the orders can ensure the safety of victims and their children.
However, if POs are not obtained or enforced, the consequences can be dire, if not fatal, as in the case of 28-year-old Nurhidayah Abdul Ghani who was beaten to death by her estranged husband in 2014 despite multiple police reports against him.
Laws need to be amended to reflect the living realities of women and protect them against the violence that they go through daily.
A real threat
The experience of women like Lara and Nurhidayah are not isolated ones. Stalking has been recognised as a common form of domestic violence and many of the women who seek help from NGOs like WAO need refuge from their abusive spouse or partner.
Shelters are in undisclosed locations precisely to safeguard these survivors from husbands trying to track them down.
Although data on the prevalence of stalking by intimate partners in Malaysia is not available, a 2014 Universiti Sains Malaysia study estimated that nine out of every 100 women who have been in relationships have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime – that is roughly 900,000 women in Malaysia.
“How many have experienced stalking? A 2013 report by WAO documented that out of 34 domestic violence cases, nine women had been stalked by their abusers which is about 26%. This tallies with statistics from the United States where, according to a 2011 Centres for Disease Control and Prevention report, approximately a third of women domestic violence survivors were stalked by their abusers.
“Using this data, we can estimate that between 230,000 to 300,000 women have been, or are stalked, by their abusive partners here in Malaysia. And this figure does not include children, men and never-partnered women whom we know are also victims of stalking,” says Yu.
He points out that stalking causes harm and is indicative of worse. JAG has highlighted evidence of the harm stalking can bring though various memorandums to the government from as early as 2005.
Research shows that stalking can cause victims mental distress, anxiety, depression, guilt, helplessness as well as emotional trauma, among other things.
“Stalking is indicative of more severe abuse. A 2012 study by the United States National Institute of Justice concluded that an abuser who stalks his intimate partner is likely to be more controlling and physically and sexually violent compared to abusers who do not stalk. Stalking also often precedes murders in domestic disputes,” says Yu.
Take action now
Stalking in itself is not a crime in Malaysia and if it does not lead to other criminal acts, it cannot be punishable by law.
“Currently, there is no clear legal definition against the standalone crime of stalking. The act of following someone around and intimidating them without physical harm is still not recognised as a crime. But based on the experiences of women, JAG has been lobbying for stalking to be included in the Penal Code,” says Melissa.
The DVA offers some form of protection against stalking but these avenues are inadequate.
A PO can prohibit a perpetrator from going near the victim(s) and even communicating with her. However, the PO often cannot protect against stalking.
“First, a victim can only apply for a PO if the domestic violence case goes to court. Most cases, like Lara’s, end during police investigations. Next, the court may choose not to include in the PO the specific orders protecting against stalking. Lastly, the PO is only valid for a maximum of 12 months, and can only be renewed once. Stalking cases often go on for years,” Yu points out.
Because the DVA recognises psychological abuse as a form of domestic violence, victims can get protection against some forms of stalking if they can prove they have suffered mental torture. “But it is difficult to get the DVA to be read together with the Penal Code and for this type of violence to be considered a crime.
But needing to prove psychological abuse before getting protection is problematic. First, this requirement may delay police investigations and protection. Next, acts associated with stalking (like repeatedly following another person) that are not proven to have caused psychological abuse will not be deemed an offence.
Melissa points out, however, that a PO is not an option in stalking cases that involve non-family members.
“When the stalker is a stranger or a colleague or intimate partners the victim is not married to, a PO is not an option,” she says.
Making stalking a crime is completely feasible, says Yu, pointing to countries like Singapore, the Philippines, Britain, India and Canada, that have already amended their laws to criminalise stalking.
“Of course, laws alone are not sufficient. Enforcement agencies must be supported with sufficient resources, training, and oversight. But amending the law is a necessary first step, which will better equip enforcement agencies to protect survivors and send a clear signal to society that stalking is wrong. All Malaysians should support amending the DVA to protect against stalking,” says Yu.
There are many ways perpetrators stalk their victims: following a person around, appearing and lurking at the target’s home or workplace, sending unwanted gifts, making harassing phone calls, leaving messages or objects, driving by or staking the victim’s home or workplace, vandalising a person’s property, going through their belongings and even harassing the victim’s family and friends.
The advent of social media has made stalking all the more invasive, with new forms such as humiliating a person by posting private photos or information online, leaving threatening comments and messages, humiliating and isolating the victim by harassing their friends and so on.
Statistics show that women get stalked more than men. In the United States, one in six women and one in 19 men have experienced stalking at some point. In Britain, one in five women and one in 10 men get stalked. Data on stalking in Malaysia is unavailable.
It is crucial that protection for victims of stalking are in place for men, as well as women.
“Stalking doesn’t only happen to women and not only in domestic violence situations. That’s why it is important for it to be recognised as a crime under the Penal code,” says Yu Ren Chung, advocacy officer at Women’s Aid Organisation.
In many cases, stalkers are former intimate partners or acquaintances. But case studies and news reports show that perpetrators can be anyone, from a stranger, a professional contact to a colleague or an acquaintance.