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What has been done for the Penan women since the National Task Force report?

Penan Support Group,[1] 26 June 2013

“Bibi was 21 at the time of the interview. She was raped twice by a logger who she had first met when he gave her family a ride home after dropping her sibling off at school. Both times, he broke into her house and forced himself on her, and each time she got pregnant. The logger would occasionally bring food for Bibi and her family, and he claimed her for his wife but she refused to accept him as he had two other wives already. Bibi is illiterate and was too scared to tell anyone about the rapes when they happened.”[2]

At least since the mid-90s,[3] authorities have known of the vulnerability of Penan women and girls like Bibi[4] to sexual violence and exploitation. Finally in 2008, after immense media spotlight on the issue, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development (MWFCD) put together a National Task Force[5] to investigate the allegations.  A year later, the National Task Force released its report[6]affirming that the allegations of sexual exploitation were true, documenting eight specific cases including Bibi’s.

Now, almost five years after the National Task Force was formed, it is unclear what action has resulted following the National Task Force report. Last week, a group of five Penan women from Middle Baram in Sarawak travelled to Kuala Lumpur to ask the MWFCD about this. As far as they know, not much has been done.

Dato’ Rohani Abdul Karim, the new Minister of Women, Family and Community Development – and a Sarawakian – said last month that her ministry will get to the bottom of allegations but “officers on the ground reported that the problems have been solved” as “there are no new cases.”[7]

Perhaps it is true that no new cases have been reported after the National Task Force investigation.[8] But this does not mean that no new incidents have occurred. Sexual violence, in particular rape, is considered one of the most underreported of violent crimes.[9] And the Penan women and girls have been made more vulnerable due to additional circumstances, as highlighted in the National Task Force report:

“The sexual abuse is extremely unaccepted by the Penan community; however, they are extremely vulnerable to the abuse because of:

a.      poverty;

b.      living far inland;

c.    over dependency on logging companies for transportation to obtain health services and schooling, as well as access to basic facilities including water supply facilities, power generators, etc.;

d.      lack of confidence in the authorities, and

e.       negative perceptions and prejudices towards the Penans as being lazy, untruthful and alcoholics, causing them to feel isolated    and inferior. This makes it difficult for them to deal with external parties.”

Recognising these additional circumstances, the report not only directly addressed the sexual exploitation, it also addressed other challenges the Penan community faced, which contributed to their vulnerability and disempowerment, including difficulties in obtaining birth certificates and identity cards, poor access to healthcare, and poor access to education.

This is not to say that the MWFCD has not done anything. In June last year, the Ministry funded a three-day “empowering rural women” course organised by the non-governmental organisation Sarawak Women for Women Society, which was attended by teachers from 13 primary and secondary schools, Marudi hospital staff, health officials, government officials, and penan women and girls from 16 communities.[10]

But other than this, it is unclear what else has been done. And the lived realities of the Penan women who visited Kuala Lumpur demonstrate that despite the National Task Force report and its recommendations, their problems have not been solved, and in some instances, are getting worse.

In Long Item, a village of 30 families and 150 people, at least 15 villagers do not have identity cards, according to Amelia Balan, a Penan woman from the village. During her visit to Kuala Lumpur, Amelia brought along the forms which she helped the 15 villagers fill out in order to apply for their identity cards.

The National Task Force report recommended conducting joint registration operations, where various relevant government agencies would visit the Penan villages together to help the Penans get registered. Unfortunately these visits have not happened in Long Item, and visits conducted by the Jabatan Pendaftaran Negeri (State Registration Department) to her village are scarce.

In some instances, officials insist that applicants provide a copy of their parents’ identity cards and birth certificates, even though some villagers’ parents do not have identity cards and birth certificates themselves. Not being properly registered means restricted access to healthcare services, inability to sit for standardised exams and pursue higher education, and denial of the right to vote.

Access to healthcare also remains a challenge in Long Item. As an appointed wakil kesihatan komuniti (community health representative), Tabita De’ is provided with medication and other medical supplies to provide to villagers in between visits by a travelling doctor. However, the doctor’s visits are not always regular, due to bad weather and unequal distribution of resources, and as a result she often runs out of medication. For villagers with high blood pressure or other conditions requiring a regular supply of medication, this interruption is especially dangerous.

Additionally, many villagers in Long Item have fallen sick as the village does not have access to clean water and proper sanitary facilities. Sungai Banau, the village’s only source of water, has been polluted due to logging. The community has been left with no choice but to use the polluted water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and washing. 

Implementing the recommendations in the National Task Force report would not be nearly enough to meet the needs of Amelia and Tabita’s village, and the larger Penan community in Baram, whose struggles stretch beyond that covered in the report. Decades of logging in their ancestral lands have diminished their source of livelihood. And if built, Baram Dam will submerge an area nearly twice the size of Kuala Lumpur, displacing up to 20,000 natives in 26 villages, including Long Item.[11] 

A more comprehensive set of recommendations are laid out in the 2010 report “A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls,” not least of which include to protect native customary rights, “ensure that logging, plantation, and other large-scale companies are held accountable,” and to “ensure a genuine and transparent process as well as the full and effective participation of all segments of the Penan communities in decision-making processes that affect their lives.”

Nonetheless, the implementation of the recommendations in the National Task Force report will have a positive effect, and the Penan community and the public have the right to be informed of its progress. Last week, Dato’ Rohani indicated that she is willing to meet with the Penan women soon,[12] hopefully, with a commitment to work with the Penan community to achieve their goals.

[1] Penan Support Group a coalition of NGOs in East and West Malaysia dedicated to advocating for the rights of the Penans. Penan Support Group members that issued this article include Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Sarawakians Access (SACCESS), All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Pusat Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), and Women’s Centre for Change (WCC).

[2] Reproduced from Appendix 2 of the report by The Penan Support Group, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), and the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network (AIWN). A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls, 2010.

[3] See page 1 of A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls, 2010.

[4] Pseudonym.

[5] Jawatankuasa Bertindak Peringkat Kebangsaan Bagi Menyiasat Dakwaan Penderaan Seksual Terhadap Wanita Kaum Penan di Sarawak.

[6] Laporan Jawatankuasa Bertindak Peringkat Kebangsaan Bagi Menyiasat Dakwaan Penderaan Seksual Terhadap Wanita Kaum Penan di Sarawak.

[8] A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls, 2010, documented seven additional cases of sexual violence and exploitation, though the actual abuse happened prior to the National Task Force investiagation.

[9] American Medical Association. Sexual Assault in America, 1995.

[12] Letter from the MWFCD, Status Pelaksanaan Cadangan-cadangan Laporan Jawatankuasa Bertindak Peringkat Kebangsaan Bagi Menyiasat Dakwaan Penderaan Seksual Terhadap Wanita Kaum Penan di Sarawak, 17 June 2013.

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