Highlights from Case Studies

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Highlights from case studies

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In addition to the statistics that WAO has collected and presented in order to highlight certain aspects of survivors’ experiences and the current state of domestic violence response, we have also selected several cases that provide qualitative insight into the issues. Highlights from these case studies are shared below; the full case studies are in the next section of this report.

The survivors whose case studies are included in this report bravely agreed to share their stories, with the hope of educating the community and bringing about changes to laws and policies around, attitudes toward, and implementation of domestic violence response. All personal information of these survivors has been redacted and their names changed to protect their identities.

Highlight 6: Institutionalised multi-stakeholder response is critical to ensuring the survivor is connected with the support services she needs

Referrals to NGOs

A coordinated and institutionalised multi-stakeholder response is critical to intervening in domestic violence and providing survivors with comprehensive support. Such a multi-stakeholder response is part of the broader community response that is necessary to address domestic violence, and requires acknowledging the roles of diverse agencies, from the police, to the welfare department, hospitals, NGOs, and the Courts.

In Case 1, Alice was referred to WAO when she called the emergency 999 number in Sabah. The representative who assisted Alice had the knowledge that there was a directory of NGOs that she could refer callers to, and took the initiative to do so. Such initiative on the part of the 999 representative was likely the result of training which included a component on how to refer cases. A standardised referral process should be adopted by all states so that 999 responders, police officers, hospitals, and other stakeholders are equipped to make immediate referrals to survivors in need of shelter and other crisis support services, as was done in Alice’s case.

The police officer handling Alice’s case was extremely helpful and sensitive to the nature of a domestic violence situation, going out of his way to make arrangements to ensure Alice and her social worker’s safety and convenience. This type of coordination between stakeholders, with the wellbeing of the survivor at the forefront, can be achieved with ongoing collaboration, training, and knowledge-sharing.

Advising survivors on their options

Similarly, in Case 6, the JKM officer advised Sarah of how she could seek protection for her children when it became clear that adding them to the IPO was not an option. Had the JKM officer simply told Sarah that her children could not be added to the IPO and not suggested any other options, Sarah would have been left feeling hopeless and apprehensive about the safety of her children.

This action by the JKM officer illustrates the importance of the role that JKM officers and other stakeholders can play in not only providing critical information to the survivor, but also addressing individual needs. It also emphasises, once again, the importance of proper training and multi-stakeholder engagement for all responders of domestic violence, so that each party understands their role not only in a silo, but in the context of the wholistic, community response that is required.

Highlight 7: Employers can intervene in in domestic violence and support survivors with gender-sensitive policies

As highlighted by Case 6, employers have the potential to play an important role in supporting survivors of domestic violence. In Sarah’s case, her employer was the one to refer her to WAO when she learned of the abuse that Sarah was experiencing.

Survivors are often socially isolated by their abusers – so if survivors work outside the home, their employer can play a role in identifying and responding to DV. Where an employee has become withdrawn or there is a drastic negative turn in her performance, an employer who recognises the signs of domestic violence may intervene, such as by providing the employee with information or referring them for counselling, as is provided by some companies.

Other positive practices WAO has observed in the past include employers granting leave to employees who are going through domestic violence in order to attend court hearings or counselling sessions, or calling the police when a perpetrator has shown up at the employee's workplace, in violation of an IPO. 

At the other end of the spectrum, WAO has seen cases where women have been terminated from their jobs due to a decrease in productivity or increase in absenteeism associated with domestic violence (e.g. due to missing work as a result of court hearings, medical appointments, counselling sessions, or emotional issues), or felt compelled to leave as a result of fear or embarrassment when their perpetrators show up at their workplace. Although not well documented in Malaysia, there have been numerous instances in other jurisdictions of women being abused or even killed in the workplace.

Not all employers have a policy in place around domestic violence. The best practice for all employers is to conduct a review of all human resource policies to improve gender sensitivity, gender equality, and inclusion. This includes policies and procedures that address domestic violence, sexual harassment, pregnancy, and other forms of gender discrimination. In other jurisdictions, such as the U.S., federal and state laws actually require that employers provide leave or other benefits to victims of domestic violence. In absence of such laws in Malaysia, employers should take it upon themselves to introduce policies that encourage gender equality and a safe workplace for all individuals, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it will result in healthier and safer employees, increased productivity in the workplace, and a better bottom line.[12]

Highlight 8: Incorporating exceptions for domestic violence into relevant laws and policies can increase access to justice for survivors

Accessing and navigating the justice system can be difficult for anyone, let alone for an individual who is attempting to move forward from the trauma of domestic violence. Cost is one major hurdle to many survivors who wish to cut ties with their abuser and obtain a divorce, as the legal fees associated with doing so can be quite substantial.

In order to qualify for aid from the Legal Aid Bureau,[13] an applicant must show that her financial resources do not exceed RM25,000 per annum. However, there are many survivors whose earnings fall above the maximum threshold to qualify for legal aid, but who do not actually earn enough or have too many other financial obligations to be able to afford legal representation. Thus, a simple means test—especially one with a bar that is too low, does not account for the unique situation of domestic violence survivors.

Case 4 illustrates a situation where a survivor was able to qualify for legal aid and obtain representation in her divorce case. In that case, Rachel met the means test for legal aid since she was not earning an independent income and all assets were in her husband’s name. Furthermore, Rachel was able to bypass the normal waiting period to be assigned a lawyer for her divorce case—wherein an individual must first show that they have been separated for two years—by providing proof that she was a survivor of domestic violence.

Another area in which the law recognises the trauma experienced by survivors of domestic violence is in the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (LRA). Under Section 50 of the LRA, no divorce petition may be granted prior to two years from the date of marriage. However, there is a provision for exceptional circumstances or hardship suffered by the petitioner, which may be argued in domestic violence cases, so that if there is evidence supporting the allegations of abuse (e.g. police report or IPO), individuals may bypass this waiting period.

These provisions provide positive examples of how law and policy can be shaped to acknowledge the unique and complex experiences of domestic violence survivors, and to enhance the ability of these survivors to access justice and move forward with their lives.

Highlight 9: JPN marriage tribunal procedures put survivors at risk

Married couples are required to attend marriage tribunals at Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara (JPN) when they wish to divorce. This poses challenges to domestic violence survivors seeking to divorce their abusers, as Cases 2 and 3 demonstrate.

Case 2 highlights the issue of non-Muslim survivors being required to attend the marriage tribunals in the location where they last resided, which is typically where they lived with their abusive spouse. In domestic violence situations, this can be very problematic when a survivor has moved away from her last address to escape the abuse of her husband. To make the survivor travel back to the area where the perpetrator resides can cause great fear and trauma for the survivor, and also puts her safety at risk. It may also be financially burdensome for survivors, who may have to borrow money or take time off work to travel back and forth to the tribunal.

In Case 3, Nandita and her WAO social worker were put in a dangerous position when they had to return to the area where Nandita had previously resided with her husband to attend her marriage tribunal. However, even more detrimental than having to attend the tribunal in this geographic area was the fact that Nandita was called for the tribunal together with her perpetrator. As detailed in Case 3, clients can be put at grave risk of harm if required to be in the presence of their perpetrator.

Attendance at the JPN tribunals is mandated by Section 106(5)(a) LRA, but, importantly, this section does not require that the parties be present and heard together. This is crucial, as many women, and even JPN officers, judges, lawyers, and social workers are not aware that it is not a requirement for the parties to appear together at a JPN tribunal. Despite this, in WAO’s experience, most of the time women are called to appear at the same time as their husbands, even in domestic violence situations.

Section 106(1)(vi) of the LRA does set out the possibility of an exemption from the marriage tribunal 'where reference to a conciliatory body is impracticable'.  However the legal fees associated with applying for this exemption would typically be around RM 5,000-6,000, which is cost-prohibitive for many women. 

Highlight 10: Gender-discriminatory policies create difficulties with school transfers for domestic violence survivors and their children

 Survivors of domestic violence must deal with a host of issues in their moment of crisis. These issues include ensuring the immediate safety of themselves and their children, which requires the intervention of the police and the welfare department. After the initial challenges, there are many other issues that a survivor must deal with as she works to rebuild her life. In some ways, dealing with the issues that arise in the aftermath of the crisis can be more challenging, as much emphasis is placed on institutionalising policies and procedures relating to services provided to the survivor during the crisis, with less emphasis being placed on policies and procedures related to issues that may arise after the crisis.

Among these issues is that of transferring a child’s school from the location where the child previously resided with her mother (the survivor) and her father (the perpetrator) to a new location where she is residing with her mother or being cared for by another party.

In Case 2, despite the domestic violence she and her children had endured, Mary was not successful in transferring her children to a different school because their father objected to the transfer. As a result, Mary’s children were forced to remain out of school for a period of time. In Case 13, Crystal’s children were transferred to a different school without her knowledge, and Crystal was informed that her husband had the right to request this transfer unilaterally, without Crystal’s consent. Crystal was told that only in cases whether the mother has a custody order can the school complete the transfer without the father’s permission.

These cases indicate a lack of a uniform policy around the transfer of a child’s school, adversely affecting domestic violence survivors and their children. A uniform policy should immediately be implemented which takes into account the best interests of the child, as well as Section 5 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1961, which gives each parent equal guardianship rights over the children.

Highlight 11: First responders’ lack of awareness of provisions and duties under DVA leaves survivors vulnerable to further harm

Insensitivity to domestic violence and victim-blaming

Though the enactment of the DVA was the first step in highlighting the seriousness of domestic violence, many members of society still think of domestic violence as a private, family matter—one that should be dealt with within the home rather than with external parties such as the police or courts. This perception is reinforced by traditional notions of gender roles, which shape not only the content of laws, but also how these laws are enforced. In addition to insensitivity, these traditional notions manifest in victim-blaming behaviours, whereby the actions of the perpetrator are minimised, and the responsibility for the wrongful act is placed on the victim.

As such, even those protections that are afforded in law and policy to survivors of domestic violence may not in actuality be made available to survivors, due to reluctance on the part of relevant officials to intervene in domestic violence cases. These reservations, coupled with a lack of understanding and sensitivity around gender issues and a lack of knowledge of the relevant laws, prove detrimental to the effectiveness of the DVA as a means of protecting survivors and deterring perpetrators.

Cases 6, 12 and 16 illustrate certain harmful practices of state responders to domestic violence that may dissuade a survivor from returning to seek help in the future. In Case 6, Sarah had filed twelve police reports over the years, but no investigation paper was ever opened; rather, the police simply called Sarah’s husband and gave him a warning. Even worse, however, was that when Sarah returned to the police station to file another report, the police asked her why she was still getting pregnant, without actually acknowledging the domestic violence she had endured. Such remarks indicate a reluctance to view DV in a serious manner, and a mentality of placing the blame for DV on the victim and mitigating the culpability of the perpetrator.

This lack of sensitivity and awareness was similarly demonstrated by the JPN officer in Case 6, who advised Sarah to think about what was best for her children and return to her husband. Such comments—besides showing a lack of understanding—may also cause actual harm to a survivor, who may believe that her choice to leave her abusive situation is wrong, and that she is somehow being selfish in wishing to escape the violence. Many survivors struggle to overcome such feelings of shame and guilt, and to have such notions reinforced by other members of the community—particularly those who are in positions of authority—can be detrimental to the survivor’s well-being.

A similar insensitivity to the experience of domestic violence survivors is illustrated by Case 12, wherein both the police officer and immigration officer Diya interacted with in trying to retrieve her stolen passport refused to help her, despite knowing her circumstances. In this case, Diya also believed that her uncle, an influential police official, may have been misusing his power to track Diya’s whereabouts.

Finally, the IO in Case 16 was reluctant to investigate the case and refused to issue a referral for an IPO, telling J that this was a “personal family matter.” Again, the display of such attitudes by those in positions of authority who are supposed to be assisting the survivor can be extremely harmful, as the survivor may think she is doing something wrong in seeking help, or may decide not to return to the police for fear of the response she may get.

Lack of awareness of roles and responsibilities under the law

Both a reluctance to treat DV as a crime and not simply as a family matter, as well as resulting insensitivities demonstrated by first responders, can be remedied through proper training. This training can not only dispel misconceptions and shift attitudes around domestic violence, but also clarify for a first responder what his or her responsibilities under the law are.

The police are first responders in most cases of domestic violence. As Cases 5, 9, and 18 demonstrate, the police play a critical role not only in taking actions to investigate the case and make a referral to the DPP to press charges, but also in providing critical information to the survivor at various stages in the process. In Case 9, the police did not inform the survivor of the availability of an IPO, and so despite the fact that Bina had gone to the police several times to file police reports, she was never aware that the law provided some further protection of which she could avail herself.

In Case 5, neither the police nor the DPP kept Noor informed when her husband was brought to trial. A lack of up-to-date information can have grave consequences for a survivor, as she may not know when she is protected and when she is at risk of further abuse or harassment by her abuser. For example, an IPO is only valid until the time the investigation of the case by the police ends and the case is charged in Court, so if a survivor is not informed that the case has been charged, then she may believe the IPO to still be valid, without realising that she is unprotected. Similarly, if a survivor is not kept informed when her perpetrator’s case goes to trial, she will be unaware of whether he has been acquitted or convicted, as well as of whether the PO is still valid and when he is released from prison (if sentenced to serve time), and may believe herself to be safe when she is in fact at risk. In Noor’s case, her husband came to look for her as soon as he was released from prison.

Cases 18 and 20 illustrate instances—that could have been avoided with proper training—of first responders being unaware of their responsibilities and proper procedures under the DVA. In Case 18, the Investigation Officer (IO) was unaware of the process to apply for a Protection Order (PO) until the WCC social worker referred him to the Garis Panduan. Despite this, the IO erroneously applied for an IPO instead of a PO, and was subsequently reluctant to resubmit the application. Similarly, in Case 20, the IO refused to provide Z with a referral letter for an IPO, stating that he would only assist Z with a divorce application. Such lack of knowledge on the part of first responders can not only shake the survivor’s confidence in her ability to seek help and escape her abusive situation, but can cause significant delays in ensuring the survivor access to protection and justice.

Highlight 12: Adoption of uniform shelter standards can improve and increase shelter services across the country

Shelter is one of the most critical components of crisis response for survivors of domestic violence. Many survivors are without family or friends they can turn to, and have nowhere to go even if they decide they are prepared to leave their abusive home. For these women, access to shelter can be life saving.

Every year, only a few hundred women are able to seek shelter services at one of the 42 shelters gazetted by the Malaysian government. Of the 42 shelters, 34 are government shelters. In the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, these government shelters housed on average a total of just 32 domestic violence survivors each year (the shelters housed other women who were not domestic violence survivors).[14] WAO, the largest gazetted shelter provider, shelters roughly one hundred domestic violence survivors each year (117 women in 2016). Demand for WAO’s shelter services consistently exceeds capacity.  

The shelters that are most beneficial to survivors are those that do not simply give them a bed to sleep in and a roof over their heads; shelter also means facilitating a survivor’s access to physical safety, legal protection, justice, and the post-shelter support that will empower her to move towards a better, safer future that is free from violence.

Case 7 Highlights a situation where a survivor sought refuge at a government shelter after enduring years of abuse, but was not provided any practical support during her time at the shelter. Furthermore, she was not given any notice about when she would have to leave the shelter, and was simply told after two months that she must pack her things and move out immediately. Such provision of shelter services is not only not productive, but can cause further harm to a survivor who is already dealing with the trauma of domestic violence and has been forced to uproot from her home and her life.

In 2016, WAO published the Domestic Violence Shelter Standards and Toolkit, in conjunction with the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development. The creation of these shelter standards was founded on the belief that, while not every woman survivor will be in need of shelter, its availability increases her choices and offers alternatives to living in violence. Furthermore, in order for the provision of shelter to be effective and positively impactful, it must be standards-based, deriving from the specific needs of domestic violence survivors, and ensuring that a minimum level of security, confidentiality, and other factors are met.

It is WAO’s vision that these shelter standards will be adopted by all existing domestic violence shelters in Malaysia, and also provide guidance to organisations looking to open new shelters. We also hope these standards will spur government action to ensure enough shelter is available throughout the country, either by funding or operating shelters.

Highlight 13: Vulnerable communities of women are both more susceptible to domestic violence and face more obstacles in escaping it

Foreign survivors and survivors married to foreign citizens

In addition to the host of issues typically faced by survivors of domestic violence, survivors who are foreign citizens married to Malaysian men or Malaysian women married to foreign citizens face additional issues posed by their own immigration status or the status of their perpetrator-husband.

Non-citizen wives of Malaysian men are entirely dependent on their husbands to renew their visas, and by extension to legally work, open bank accounts, and access financial credit. Non-citizen wives are thus more vulnerable to social isolation and abuse and face more obstacles in escaping their abusive situations, as illustrated by Case 8 and Case 11. However, it should be noted that a non-citizen spouse who is experiencing DV may apply for a DV spousal visa, which is typically granted for a longer period than a temporary pass, e.g. for six months to one year. However, this requires showing certain proof of DV, such as a police report, and also obtaining a local sponsor who resides in the state in which the survivor is applying for the visa.

In Case 8, although Sofia, an Indian citizen, had been married to her husband for ten years, her husband refused to apply for a birth certificate for their youngest child. In that situation, where Sofia would have a marriage certificate to prove that she and her Malaysian husband are legally married, her husband still either had to be present or, as WAO was informed by JPN, provide his original IC in order for the child to be registered as a Malaysian citizen.

Conversely, Case 10 illustrates issues faced by domestic violence survivors who are Malaysian women married to foreign citizens. In addition to potentially facing stigma from their families for having married someone outside of their community, these survivors may also be more vulnerable to financial abuse, particularly if their spouses are not able to legally work in Malaysia and are entirely reliant on the survivor for financial support.

Refugees and asylum-seekers

The power imbalance and associated factors that contribute to and characterise domestic violence--including financial dependence and social isolation-- may be exacerbated for refugees and asylum-seekers who have left their home countries to seek protection. Some of the issues faced by domestic violence survivors who are refugees, asylum-seekers, and individuals who become undocumented are highlighted in Cases 14 and 15.

In Case 14, Catherine, who was an asylum-seeker in Malaysia, did not have access to the support of her family, since she was alone in Malaysia. In Catherine’s case, her husband forced her to work and lived off of her earnings. However, the lack of recognition of the right to work for refugees in Malaysia means that refugees and asylum-seekers are pushed into the informal workforce, and so they are without recourse to legal employment rights and are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. Due to Catherine’s prior negative experiences with enforcement officers, she did not seek help from the police and endured the violence until she was referred to Good Shepherd. This reluctance to engage with the authorities more than is absolutely necessary is likely quite common among refugees and asylum-seekers, whose experiences may lead them to view the police as adversaries rather than allies.

Case 15 highlights a case where the abuser was a family member; this type of abuse also falls under the scope of the DVA. Cindy was orphaned and brought to Malaysia by her sister, who forced her to work in her home, and refused to renew Cindy’s passport when it expired. Cindy was made further vulnerable by her lack of documentation, which further exacerbated her social isolation in Malaysia and complete dependence on her sister and her family. As this case illustrates, even individuals who enter Malaysia with documentation may later become undocumented and vulnerable to various forms of abuse and exploitation.

Highlight 14: Trauma associated with domestic violence demonstrates the need for a survivor-centred response

Psychological trauma is defined as “the unique individual experience of an event or enduring conditions, in which the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.”[15] Trauma can result from a single event (e.g. a natural disaster) or an ongoing series of events (e.g. being physically and emotionally abused over an extended period of time), with the latter typically resulting in the most serious and prolonged response, such as mental health issues.[16] The lasting effects of trauma include depression, anxiety, personality disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders, among other things.[17]

The trauma endured by survivors of domestic violence is illustrated in various ways throughout the case studies. In Case 3, Nandita, who had been physically, psychologically, and socially abused by her husband for ten years was visibly terrified at the sight of him. In Case 12, Diya, grew up in an abusive household, witnessing her father’s abuse of her mother, and then later entered an abusive relationship herself, which may be related to the trauma she experienced as a child. In Case 17, L was subjected to abuse by her husband in the form of slapping, kicking, and being told to “go and die,” even while she was pregnant. As a result of this abuse, L suffered from depression and became suicidal.

It is critical that the trauma endured by survivors of domestic violence be taken into account when conceptualising and implementing a coordinated multi-stakeholder response. Although among the principles emphasised in the Garis Panduan are prioritising the welfare of victims, including their safety and comfort in providing assistance or services, this is not something that is being widely or consistently done at this point in time.

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