It’s not an exaggeration to say that Malaysia is fast becoming one of the rape capitals of the world. With an all-time high in cases of sexual assault last year, there is much finger-pointing toward law enforcers and the government who stand idle on the matter, but surprisingly little towards society itself that ultimately has the power to end rape.
Women and girls in Malaysia live with the knowledge that we are targets of sexual assault on a daily basis; we are never safe in the daytime nor at night, not on the streets, indoors, and certainly not in our own homes as reports suggest. There is more information foisted upon women and girls on how to prevent rape – from locking their car doors, not walking alone at night, never accepting an invitation to meet with a stranger, to never parking their cars in poorly-lit and isolated places – but little to no information on how to tell men – and women – to stop raping.
The issuing of preventive measures but not tough reminders to would-be rapists suggest that women and girls are responsible for our own safety. If we get raped it becomes mainly our fault for getting ourselves in compromising situations. Rapists may or may not get their legal comeuppances, but the damage has been done for both sides of the assault. Before we become a brutalised society baying for the blood of retribution, we should at least place heavier responsibilities on members of society who have greater access to committing violence – those with capital, social, and physical power.
Many people often assume that rape will continue to happen no matter what; there is an assumption that rape is committed by one lone violent person who is not normal, not one of us, is mad or whatever psycho-pathological characteristic one cares to describe. But this is not true. Most people will never commit rape in their entire lifetime, but are complicit in the prevalence of rape in Malaysia by not taking rape seriously enough. Some may even commit rape without even recognising it as such.
The following are 10 steps Malaysians can take to stop rape. Since women and girls make the majority of rape victims and survivors, at times I will address certain steps as male privilege issues. In such cases, the steps are directed at men, but women and girls are encouraged to be supportive of said measures.
1. Stop trivialising rape.
Do not joke or laugh about rape. Do not consider some forms of sexual violence as less serious than others. Do not threaten someone with rape when you are angry, even if you think you won’t go as far as to rape that person.
2. Speak up against daily injustices
Rape emerges out of a continuum of violence in society, it is not an isolated act of violence. It occurs because there are other social injustices and other forms of violence – such as sexual harassment, physical and emotional abuse, poverty, homophobia, transphobia, classism, racism, and xenophobia (especially against domestic helpers), that contribute to the aggression, hate, and dehumanisation of people.
3. Express and promote a healthy attitude towards sex
Because sex education in Malaysia is inadequate, people learn about sex from pornography, abstinence is promoted, and hardly anyone talks openly about the naturalness of sexual desire but instead frame sex in the context of shame and deviance, Malaysians in general have an unhealthy attitude towards sex. The myth that male sexual desires cannot be controlled must end and replaced with the idea of mutual respect and informed sexual practice.
4. Stop the vilification against sex workers
When sex workers are raped because of their profession, ALL women and girls are implicated in this act of violence. How? Sex workers are assaulted and abused because they are viewed as ‘damaged goods’ or sex objects who do not deserve society’s respect. This means that all women and girls have to be careful about how they behave and dress, because the line between ‘pure’ and ‘slutty’ blurs and changes beyond our control and exposes us to a similar abuse perpetrated against sex workers.
5. Trust survivors of rape.
One of the major setbacks in rape convictions is the lack of trust in a survivor’s account. But no matter what she wears or has done, it is never a woman or girl’s fault they are sexually assaulted. Men and boys who do become survivors of rape often find it more difficult to come forward about their assault for fear of insult, humiliation, and even disbelief. Only when survivors of rape are taken seriously and supported, society can understand the severity of the crime.
6. As men, challenge other men
This is a step that men have to be responsible for, and that is to speak up against the misogynistic and chauvinistic things other men – primarily their family members, friends, religious leaders, and work colleagues say or do.
7. Listen to women and girls
Listen and do not talk over what women and girls have to say, because a male perspective on rape that has never been deeply informed by the experiences of women is doomed to be narrow, arrogant, and ignorant.
8. Respect what women and girls have to say
We live in a society where what women and girls say are not taken seriously. Men dominate conversations, take charge, make decisions, and lead both women and men. The indirect effect of this discursive imbalance is the assumption that women and girls are emotional, scatterbrained or less capable enough to engage in serious issues.
When the words of women and girls are not respected, we find ourselves silenced and sometimes end up silencing ourselves. Valuable perspectives are lost and we end up drafting paternalistic measures that ignore input that arise from the concerns and anxieties of women and girls.
9. Contribute your time and money to rape crisis centres or any women’s organisations that have an interest in ending sexual violence.
Donate or volunteer at women’s shelters or at helpline centres such as the Telenita at AWAM and WAO in Petaling Jaya, Tenaganita for migrant workers in Petaling Jaya, Shelter for refugees and children at risk in Petaling Jaya, PT Foundation for transwomen, sex workers, and drug users in Kuala Lumpur, the WCC in Penang, and Pusat Kebajikan Good Sheperd in Perak. Volunteering can emotionally taxing for many people, but it will offer an insight into the kind of care provided for survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Unfortunately, crisis centres are concentrated in bigger cities in Malaysia, but that does not suggest that rape only occurs in urban areas.
10. And finally, do not have sex with someone without their consent.
When someone says ‘no’ to your sexual advances, they really mean ‘no’. You do not have sex or sexually violate someone in their sleep or when they’re unconscious.