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Activists warn of ‘shadow pandemic’ surge in gender-based violence

They say a holistic approach is needed to step up proactive measures against such cases.

Farhira Farudin
2 minute read
Women's rights activists say the various restrictions on movement during the Covid-19 pandemic likely exacerbated the trend of domestic violence against women. Photo: Bernama
Women's rights activists say the various restrictions on movement during the Covid-19 pandemic likely exacerbated the trend of domestic violence against women. Photo: Bernama

Rights activists are calling for proactive measures to curb gender-based violence amid a disturbing surge in cases reported throughout the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

The All Women’s Action Society or Awam said reports of such violence lodged with the group rose to 261 in 2020: 159 on sexual harassment, 81 on domestic violence and 21 on rape.

This marked a significant increase from 2019, where 33 cases of domestic violence, 16 of sexual harassment and three of rape were reported.

The group’s spokesman Tan Chia Ee said one of the factors behind the increase in cases was the economic fluctuations induced by the pandemic.

“Economic and job insecurity significantly elevates stress which can lead to an increase in violence,” she told MalaysiaNow.

The trend of domestic violence was further exacerbated by the restrictions on movement as the various phases of lockdown kept many confined in the same space as their abusers, she said.

Noraida Endut, director of Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Research on Women and Gender agreed, adding that the actual number of cases that occurred during the lockdowns might be underreported as victims would have been unable to leave their homes to lodge a complaint.

“The restrictions on movement mean that survivors have to stay in the house with the perpetrators for a prolonged period, which will increase the chances of violence being triggered,” she said.

“The movement restrictions also mean that it’s difficult for survivors to get help.”

Noraida also raised concerns over the trend of gender-based violence online which she said would have as great an effect on the victims as physical abuse since perpetrators may remain anonymous while committing the acts, assuming that they are safe from the authorities.

“Women communicating online who do not conform to certain social standards about being women are often targeted for harassment,” she said.

“For example, if a woman expresses an opinion on social media which is seen to be deviating from social norms, she may get threats of rape or sexual assault.”

Such cases are labelled the “shadow pandemic”. Tan from Awam said a holistic approach must be taken, adding that gender-based violence is a systematic issue.

She told MalaysiaNow of a case in Johor in which a woman who was sexually assaulted approached the police to lodge a report and was told that she was raped because she had not resisted strongly enough. She also received threats of further harassment from the perpetrator.

Tan said this showed a lack of awareness on the part of the authorities which could have a long-term impact on victims.

“(We need to) improve police sensitivity in the management of gender-based violence cases to minimise the secondary traumatisation of survivors,” she said.

Within the community, too, proactive measures are needed to raise awareness about the harmful impact of gender-based violence, she added.

She suggested that the public be empowered with first-respondent skills so that they can offer support to survivors at an early stage.

“The community is often the first point of contact for the survivor in terms of support,” she said.

“This can be done at the community level, whereby awareness is concurrently increased among the survivor’s community members.”

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