WRITING down the details of Zara Tan’s complaint, the female police officer broke off and suddenly asked why the victim didn’t just go back to her “sweet and loving” ex-boyfriend.
By that point, Tan had made five reports to Malaysian police detailing how her abusive former boyfriend had stalked her over a one-year period. During this nightmare time, Tan was threatened, followed, harassed at home and work, she lost two jobs and her business, and was sent a daily barrage of abusive and obscene e-mails, text messages and phone calls.
“It was extremely horrible. I felt helpless,” says Tan, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “I was constantly looking over my shoulder. During those months I wanted to end my life because I didn’t know who to turn to.
“It’s not the fault of the police – it is not the culture here to see these things as crimes – they just see it as a domestic thing.”
Stalking, which doesn’t necessarily involve physical aggression, is often an ongoing pattern of threats and intimidation. Women are predominantly the targets and the behaviour can lead to sexual violence or murder, women’s rights experts say.
Malaysia, like most countries across Asia-Pacific, does not have an anti-stalking law and such behaviour is often culturally seen as a private or family matter – something not to be discussed openly.
Tan says she dated her former boyfriend for less than a year before he began stalking her.
“The mental torture is unexplainable. It is worse than physical assault – where the wounds eventually disappear,” she says.
Out of the 36 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, fewer than half have stalking laws. Those that do include Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines and Singapore, says UN Women.
“I see very few countries paying enough attention to this – similar to femicide – in this region,” says Melissa Alvarado, a programme manager at UN Women in Bangkok.
For more Asian countries to adopt stalking laws, there is a need for more data and research on the problem, says Alvarado, adding that without this, the scale of the problem is unknown.
Public awareness campaigns are needed because many women who experience violence are not always sure if what they experienced is a crime, so they do not report it, she says, adding that this would also help policymakers discuss such issues more openly.
“Some women, and I understand this has also been true in the case of Malaysia, have been stalked and felt terrified and yet police have said ‘well, but nothing has actually happened yet’,” says Alvarado. “It may really miss the chance to prevent something awful from happening.”
In a 2013 WAO report documenting 34 domestic violence cases, 26% of the cases involved stalking. A 2014 study by Universiti Sains Malaysia found that 9% of women in Peninsular Malaysia who have ever been in a relationship – or over 900,000 women – have experienced domestic violence.
The Malaysian government has begun early discussions on introducing an anti-stalking law and the views of NGOs and women’s rights groups would be welcomed and taken into account, according to the de facto Law Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong.
“We have to protect the safety of people who feel they have been threatened,” says Liew, noting that a lack of data makes it difficult to grasp the seriousness of the problem.
On Thursday, The Star reported that the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality and the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) have submitted draft anti-stalking legislation to the minister, and they hope to discuss it with him soon.
“Stalking is currently not a crime in Malaysia, which means that if someone were to repeatedly contact you, follow you, or show up at places you frequent, in a way that would reasonably cause fear or emotional distress, there is little that the authorities can do,” says WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan.
Sumitra concurs that the police do not take stalking complaints seriously, and the responsibility is usually on the woman to find a solution – by changing her phone number, moving house or even moving to another state.
Tan, with support from her family, is slowly getting her life back on track with a new job and relationship. Most importantly, she hasn’t been contacted by her stalker for one year and she suspects he is now in a new relationship. Tan still has nightmares, remains vigilant in public places – scanning a room before taking a seat – and keeps a low profile on social media.
“All my life I’ve never had regrets but I do wish this had not happened,” she says. “I’m hopeful about my life now.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation