Break men’s silence on violence against women

DEC 12 — It is impossible for us to know how Siti Aishah Ariffin felt when she found out that she had lost all three of her daughters at one go. 

The anguish, trauma and despair which any mother would feel upon losing her child must have been unbearable when the bodies of Norsyafika Nadia Rusdi (14 years old) and then later, her sisters, Nur Izzati Husna (12 years old) and Puteri Nurul Akma (3 years old), were discovered in a padi field and a canal in Kedah after being reported as missing. 

At the time of this writing, police investigations have determined that at least two of them had drowned and a 16-year-old schoolboy has been detained in connection with these three murders. We still don’t know what actually happened on that day when all three girls went out on that motorcycle ride.

I am sure that many Malaysians have reached out through their thoughts, prayers or have offered assistance to the family in this time of great sorrow. To say that this incident is heart-breaking and a tragedy would be an understatement.

Unfortunately, it will probably be inevitable that their names join a long list of women and girls in our country who have been victims of gender-based violence.

One of the first points made when news of these deaths broke out was for parents to take better watch and care of their children. The Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Minister herself, Datuk Rohani Abdul Karim, was quoted as having said this and that parents everywhere should learn from this incident. She also said that she had no idea why the 14-year-old girl was not in school as she should have been.

I am not a parent but I do know that no mother or father who bring up their children want to see them later face-down in a ditch or floating in a canal somewhere. To say what the minister did in such a manner (which is so typical of our often less than compassionate community) was callous and implied that the fault and burden of their deaths lies on the shoulders of the girls’ parents.

When there is one death, it is a tragedy and when it is found to be murder, it is a crime. But when three hopeful and fun-loving lives in a village somewhere in Kedah are snuffed out in such a manner, we really need to do some soul-searching and ask whether our kampungs, towns and cities are safe for our children anymore. 

How many of us have grown up with these sort of fond memories: going to the neighbourhood kedai runcit at Norsyafika’s age with our brothers and sisters on bicycles or motorcycles to buy one kati of sugar for our mum, and then returning home sucking on our aiskrim asam boi purchased with the leftover money? Have our children been robbed of such experiences simply because we have done a crappy job of investing our time, money and energy to ensure a better and safer environment?

It was later revealed that Norsyafika had stopped schooling to work as a bottle cleaner. Why was she working instead of being in school? We don’t know what hardships this family endured and what led to the decision to drop out of school and to work at such a young age. 

But I do know that it wasn’t to play congkak and batu seremban. It was to help sustain and feed her family. Such circumstances increased her vulnerability to situations which might have been prevented if she was in school. Her family was left out of welfare aid and assistance. How do we know that they were left out? The fact that Norsyafika was forced to drop out of school and work to contribute towards the household income indicates how dire the situation must have been. While other kids were in school, she was cleaning bottles of detergent.

We need to make it a priority to ensure safe environments where children can remain growing up as children instead of labourers going out late at night to collect their monthly wages.

One thing I do know is that we need to speak seriously to our sons, brothers, boyfriends, cousins, fathers, uncles and grandfathers about violence against women. Today, despite much talk about reaching out to men and boys to change attitudes and mindsets which foster and tolerate violence against women, the reality is that there remains little which has changed. 

Royal Malaysian Police statistics indicate that 10 women and girls are sexually assaulted each day. Fifty per cent of all such cases, which includes rape, involve children below the age of 16. Make no mistake, sexual crimes are on the increase. 

Men have been silent when it comes to violence against women. When issues such as these three deaths come up, we see an almost total absence of men, especially our leaders, politicians and decision makers, speaking out and calling for action. It’s as if, when it comes to gender based violence, it’s a woman thing. But most of the perpetrators are men. 

New laws will not bring these three girls back. Neither can any amount of money or assistance at this point.

However, better enforcement of existing gender based violence laws and better social welfare nets will help prevent future cases from occurring. We need to continue to work with partners to reach out to men and boys to change attitudes that foster violence against women and girls. We also need to advocate with government officials to advance laws preventing violence against women, and enforce policies ensuring survivors’ access to care and legal justice.

What I think we can agree on is that these deaths were preventable and that we can do more.

Men, break the silence on violence against women.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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