When Sue* was beaten and strangled by her abusive husband during the government’s Movement Control Order (MCO), the thought of remaining captive at home for the duration of the lockdown was too much to bear. She wanted out.
She sent a desperate plea for help to the Women’s Aid Organisation’s (WAO) 24-hour WhatsApp service. Concerned for her safety, WAO quickly alerted the special unit under Royal Malaysia Police, the Sexual, Women and Children’s Investigation Division (D11).
In Sue’s case, the system worked in her favour. She was successfully rescued on the very same day. And after receiving medical treatment for her injuries, she was escorted home to retrieve her belongings and placed in a safe house.
Others may not be as lucky.
Intimate partner violence against women is pervasive
Here are sobering numbers when it comes to violence against women; One in 3 have experienced physical or sexual violence and 243 million women suffered abuse in 2019 alone. An average of 137 women are killed by her own family each day. And closer to home, an estimated 8% of women suffer from intimate partner violence nationwide.
These numbers are alarming even without the threat of a pandemic.
But with Covid-19 and lockdowns, vulnerable women are finding themselves increasingly isolated. And when you add the strain from health concerns, unemployment and financial insecurity, they create “a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors,” according to the UN Director for Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
It is a growing shadow pandemic during Covid-19 contagion
We are already seeing an escalation in domestic violence incidences worldwide. The number of police reports tripled in Hubei, China after strict lockdown was introduced. A state-run drop-in centre in Brazil recorded a 40-50% rise in just a couple of weeks. The leading British domestic abuse charity, Refuge reported a 150% increase on hits on their website.
And worryingly, not only has there been an increase in the number of cases, there is also an upward tick in the severity of violence inflicted. Campaigners have identified 16 Covid-19-related domestic abuse killings in the United Kingdom alone.
And Malaysia is not immune
When the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry announced that the Talian Kasih hotline service for those seeking advice on a variety of issues (including domestic abuse), would be suspended during the MCO, the decision was met with loud public outcry. It was quickly reversed and the hotline is now running 24 hours, 7 days a week.
It proved to be the right move. Talian Kasih received an alarming 57% increase in calls just 9 days after the MCO was introduced. While the Ministry later clarified that not all calls were related to domestic violence, it points to similar trends of escalation observed elsewhere.
The largest crisis support and shelter for abused women and children in Malaysia, WAO, also recorded an upward trend from February to March. And it is steadily rising with the extension of the #dudukrumah period. They experienced a 148% increase in calls and enquiries since the beginning of the MCO, with the highest number of enquiries recorded in April- more than double that recorded in March.
In an interview with makchic, Tan Heang-Lee, Advocacy and Communications Officer for WAO explained that “domestic violence is fundamentally about maintaining power and control, and in times of crisis, these factors can aggravate an abuser’s desire to maintain power and control.”
It is not always physical
According to Superintendent Siti Kamsiah Hassan of PDRM’s D11 Division in Bukit Aman, 409 cases of domestic violence were reported in the first month of the MCO. And the majority of reported cases involved physical violence.
However, it is important to remember that domestic abuse goes beyond the physical.
When Malaysia led Asian countries in being first to introduce laws to protect victims against domestic violence in 1994, it was narrowly focused on physical and sexual violence, as well as destruction of property. This definition was expanded in later amendments to include a broader range of acts of abuse, including threats and intimidation, intent to insult the modesty of victims and introduction of intoxicating substances without consent.
In lockdown, seeking help can be difficult
It has been disappointing to note the absence of leadership from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in addressing this very real threat to women in lockdown. The lack of clarity over Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) at the beginning of the MCO meant that many women were left uncertain on how they could obtain protection during lockdown.
“For example while some police stations have successfully carried out rescues of survivors from their abusive homes, there have been other cases where survivors were turned away at police stations and told to return after the MCO,” shared Tan. “Another challenge would be the uncertainty over how to obtain court-issued Interim Protection Orders, now that court operations are limited,” she added.
Clear and consistent messaging from the government is key
With the alarming increase in incidents recorded as the MCO went on into April, a more coordinated effort by the government to address the issue began with Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri’s urgent call for victims to come forward and seek help from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, as well as the Royal Malaysia Police.
This was later reiterated in a statement by Superintendent Siti Kamsiah Hassan, who urged the public to intervene by reporting any cases of abuse and crime in their communities.
It proved to be effective. WAO hailed the efforts by the government, saying it signalled a clear and effective response to domestic violence, encouraging survivors and bystanders to step forward.
If you need help, here are the steps you could take:
1. Contact the police
Seek help from the nearest police station. Do not let the restrictions under MCO prevent you from receiving protection and making a report. And if you cannot leave the house, make a call to 999 to affect a rescue from your home. Should you need further protection, you can ask the police to assist you in obtaining the Interim Protection Order (IPO).
2. Head to the nearest One Stop Crisis Centre (OSCC)
OSCC is located in Accidents & Emergency (A & E) Departments of selected public hospitals around the country. It is an inter-agency and patient-centred initiative that not only provides medical treatment for your injuries, it also allows you to lodge a police report, seek counselling, find a temporary & safe shelter and provide cash, if needed. All in one convenient location.
While implementation may vary from one location to another, the 24-hour access makes OSCC a vital service and support for many women. It is also operational during MCO and takes precedence over other non-emergency cases in the A & E.
3. Call a Hotline
Not all Hotlines are open 24 hours, but, Talian Kasih and WAO provide round-the-clock services during the MCO.
With volunteers operating on 8-hour shifts, WAO Crisis Support Officer Jane said she found the that calls coming in were quite varied in terms of what was needed. “I had to be aware or know how to link the caller to the correct organisation/ agencies,” she told makchic.
She said women who called in often wanted to enquire about their options after domestic violence. One such caller, she remembered, said she felt better after being briefed about what she could do next. “Before I ended the call, I asked her how she felt and she said she felt calmer and clearer as to what she needed to do. I felt I managed to empower her to go ahead with what she wanted to do.”
4. Ask for protection and shelter
If it is a matter of urgency, you could request for an Emergency Protection Order from the Social Welfare Department or JKM.
Despite operating the largest shelter in Malaysia, WAO is currently running at maximum capacity. Tan sadly shared, “Survivors have contacted WAO asking for shelter and we have been unable to place them anywhere. Some survivors have resorted to sleeping in their cars, only to be caught by the police.”
There is a clear and urgent need for more temporary shelters, especially with the extension of the Conditional MCO to 9th June.
5. If you are not ready to leave, develop a plan.
Leaving safely may require some planning and WAO has outlined clear guidelines on their social media platforms. In cases where women risk further abuse if they are overheard asking for help, Tan advised, “Ask friends or family to agree on certain code words or phrases, which would alert them to continually check in or to call the police.” When in danger, slip the code word or phrases into your messages.
It is easy to picture women with limited education and access to financial resources as victims trapped in these situations. This is a myth. The reality is, this could happen to anyone.
Here are some numbers you could call if you need more information/ to seek advice and help:
If you would like to help WAO, the best way you could do so is by donating to support their work in running the 24-hour Hotline, shelter, child care centre, counselling and social work services. You could donate to:
Account Name: Women’s Aid Organisation
Bank Name: CIMB Bank
Account No: 80-0238299-7