I was a child when this happened to me. My brother was the culprit and this went on for a month. In a week, there were between two and three episodes.
He touched me at first and it progressed onto heavier things. Initially, I was very confused because I didn’t know what was going on. I was scared… I remember feeling a lot of pain.
During that period, I couldn’t tell anyone because I was afraid and I was threatened by my brother to shut up.
But somehow I felt that I had to do something. I told myself to be brave and I told my nanny what happened.
She immediately told my mom and my mom was shocked. She then asked me to tell her what happened and I did. My mom and I immediately when to the police station to make a report.
When I made the report, I was investigated by a female police officer and I was sent home the next day. Nothing happened after that. No action was taken.
Now, I didn’t know then what was going on, that I was making a report. I was just following my mom’s instructions.
Side effects? There were none. All I remember was the pain. I remember screaming and running away from my mom whenever she asked me to take a shower.
For a while I was scared of men, especially teenage boys. This took me two years to overcome. My mom always assured me to be brave and through time, I slowly learned to accept everything that was done to me.
If you ask me today, if I still felt the trauma? Well, when a guy comes near me, I get nervous and scared and all those flashbacks just pop up in my mind. The only thing I do is, deep down, hope for nothing to happen, and then quickly walk away from there.
I have never forgiven my brother till today. It is very hard to do so. When I think about it and want to forgive him, I feel that act of forgiveness is abused because he will try to take advantage of my vulnerability.
– Jane Doe
Incest is a subject that makes people recoil. Just early this year, a 36-year-old man claimed trial to committing incest with his 14-year-old niece at a guesthouse in Butterworth, Penang, on Christmas Day. Sadly, such stories are never one off.
In Malaysia, incest is a criminal offence under Section 376A of the Penal Code:
A person is said to commit incest if he or she has sexual intercourse with another person whose relationship to him or her is such that he or she is not permitted, under the law, religion, custom or usage applicable to him or her, to marry that other person.
If that person is found guilty, the charge metes out a punishment anywhere between 10 to 30 years in prison, as well as whipping. While that might be some form of retribution for victims – or survivors, in therapy parlance – the act is anything but a deterrent: section 376A is vague.
“The section is too wide,” says lawyer M Manoharan. “It doesn’t define what sort of relationship is considered to be incestuous. Sure, there’s mention of incest and punishment. But who decides on what’s customary and what isn’t?”
One way lawyers get around the fuzziness of section 376A is to cross-reference the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 and the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territory) Act 1984, which spells out what relationships are prohibited.
These acts spell out that a sexual relationship with any blood relation, regardless of how distant that connection is, is considered to be incestuous. This extends to relationships of proximity such as stepparents and wet nurses.
But Hindus are exempt from the law reform act. It’s legal, as recognised by Hindu law/custom, for a man to marry his niece (sister’s daughter) or a woman to marry her uncle (mother’s brother).
While that custom might be acceptable, closer scrutiny of the dataset reveals something very disturbing: most of such incidences happen among teenagers aged 13 to 15 years old. And they are all girls.
What this information excludes, aside from it being up to date, are the boys (represented in cases of sodomy and statutory rape), and victims of child pornography. The latter is an industry over here – Malaysia has the highest number of IP addresses which upload and download photographs and visuals of child pornography in Southeast Asia.
And as this involves groups under the age of 16, perpetrators are expected to face a double charge on account of incest and statutory rape. The latter falls under Section 375A of the penal code.
Developmental psychology tells that early adolescents – boys and girls – experience sexual maturation. Cognitively, they are able to think fluidly and in more abstract terms, especially about future possibilities.
“They’re also searching for their identity, in understanding how they fit into society. So taken all together, there’s a lot going on for any given teenager,” says Sybella Ng, a child development specialist.
“Now, if you throw incest into the picture, the effects are long-term and wide-ranging. Just to name a few general effects, you have increased risky sexual behaviour, difficulties in their academics. They will also struggle in establishing and maintaining relationships due to issues of trust and mistrust.”
Her observations are seconded by case workers who deal with victims on a regular basis. One of them who spoke on conditions of anonymity listed the same observations, from a drop in grades to a heightened sense of insecurity.
And while the data only represents female victims, boys too should be included in the equation. “There’s a lower tendency for boys to report because of traditional gender roles and how we view victims,” says Ng.
“For boys especially, there would be the stigma that surrounds homosexuality and there’s also the stigma of being masculine. Like, ‘If I am a boy, I should be able to defend myself. I shouldn’t be seen as a victim.’
“All these can be a hurdle for boys to report and more than that, seek help. Which is where it gets a bit tricky when you have boys who are survivors of incest or even child sexual abuse.”
A general consensus among those on the ground who deal with these cases is that early intervention is crucial. But getting there, in this context, seems insuperable; where does one begin?
Aggregated data are not publicly available as many of these cases are classified under the Official Secrets Act. There are certain terms and conditions that make a document an official secret, but practice dictates otherwise, where a wide-range of agreements and deals that are of public interest have been given the “secrets” stamp.
Also, after 2008, the police made it explicitly clear that such statistics would not be made public while its distribution would be highly regulated. This makes it tough for independent researchers and new media practitioners as they are usually stonewalled by enforcement agencies.
To circumvent this, one can enlist the aid of an MP – in this case it was Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto who requested and received through a parliamentary reply for the itemised dataset cited in the chart above – where he or she can request for the statistics.
Again, this is up to the willingness of the minister in charge to provide a written reply, but that’s a much more reasonable bet than directly requesting the authorities to provide relevant aggregated data.
It is also unclear how Malaysia’s number of reported cases compares with its neighbours. Thailand has not provided data and neither has Cambodia, a favourite destination for travelling paedophiles.
But it’s from the victim’s point of view that drives how messy handling incest, or any sexual abuse, can be.
This is without broaching the complications among the three courts – federal, shariah, and native. The second one has gained some attention for punishing crimes strictly under the jurisdiction of the federal court. Crimes such as homosexuality and incest, to name a few.
Also, the shariah law provides a lighter punishment: a fine not exceeding RM5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or whipping not exceeding six strokes. As Muslims can also be tried under the shariah courts, perpetrators have used this loophole in incur a lighter sentence.
The anonymous case worker highlighted that while the police, especially the Sexual, Women, and Child Investigations Department (D11), has a standard operating procedure, it is not uniformly practiced in police stations nationwide.
The worker said among the other problems victims face include the lack of support from families.
“We have been hearing of situations that one of the adults did not believe the child. There’s one current case where the mother blames the girl/victim.
“Some also threaten the child. If the child reveals their secret, the perpetrator will harm the child or someone in the family. Or that the father will go to jail (especially if he is the breadwinner) or the family will break up.”
He added that incest victims were in deep emotional pain and trauma and instead of someone in authority who is supposed to protect and love, that same person is victimising them.
One study found that secrecy and denial were coping strategies of the family to protect the family name. This in return protected the perpetrator from any legal action, thus promoting recidivism. The blame is then shifted from perpetuator to victim, in this case the child. He or she is then re-victimised.
In in his experience dealing with incest cases, Manoharan points to the problem of double jeopardy for the victim.
“Because the accused and the victim live in the same house, the accused can directly or indirectly influence the victim. So we will not get the right results at the end of the day.
“Sometimes, the witness and the accused will talk outside of court and when it’s the witness’s time to take his or her stand, something else will be said. ‘Forgive and forget’. Sometimes the victim can also give a contradictory statement in court. So she has already gone through the punishment of being raped, then you go and punish her for perjury?”
Sara was 14 when she was raped and impregnated by her then 19-year-old brother. When her mother – a factor worker and sole breadwinner of the family of five siblings – found out, she was shocked and traumatised.
Naturally she was torn between what needed to be done because this involved her children. She supported Sara in making a police report and this led to the case being brought to court. The brother was sent to prison but throughout the trial, Sara was placed in a government-run orphanage.
This led to her being extremely depressed as she was not only separated from her mother but also taunted by other residents in the orphanage due to her pregnancy. She experienced insomnia, poor appetite and suicidal thoughts. She also started feeling sorry for her brother.
Sara’s mother eventually found a foster family to take care of her but to also ensure the entire incident was kept a secret. During this period she responded well to treatment and she delivered a healthy baby boy, who was then adopted her foster parents.
But Sara eventually returned to her parents’ house and remained in remission on two follow-up visits but dropped out of treatment after that and was lost to follow-up: she did not show up for sessions and the hospital could not reach her.
Many who work on the ground moot a residential treatment centre for survivors to find refuge and work on long-term intervention.
“It’s very important for survivors to have access to a therapeutic social environment,” says Ng.
“There are lot of times where it is not adequate to see a counsellor or therapist. So as long as survivors need that assistance, or when they find it difficult to cope with the memories, the flashbacks, they need to have that access.”
Organisations such as Agape Vision are working to make such aid a reality with a residential treatment centre in the works. The only question is accessibility for victims from all strata of society.
Melissa was 15 when she was repeatedly raped by her brother-in-law for five months. The brother-in-law said his wife (her sister) who had just delivered a baby refused to have sex with him and that he loved Melissa.
After several occasions, Melissa informed her boyfriend, Adam, who then informed her mother and urged the two to make a police report. They reluctantly did but was persuaded to withdraw the report after her sister begged her to “not destroy the family”.
The family blamed Melissa and she slumped into depression. She responded to psychiatric and psychological intervention but she continued to live in her parent’s house where her brother-in-law also stayed.
Her self-esteem dropped further and she coped through self-harm. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Adam, ended and was involved in a string of short-term relationships. She even displayed risqué behaviour by giving out her mobile number to random men.
Through time, she kept with her psychotherapy sessions and benefitted from the confiding relationship with her therapist. She learned to cope better, eventually graduated with a diploma. She tried mention relations with her sister and even helped in the sister’s business.
But her brother-in-law still approaches her for sex, which she has successfully refused. But she admits there’s a fear of lapsing back into an incestuous relationship with him. The brother-in-law was never charged in court.
“You'd be surprised to find that sometimes survivors with a long history of abuse maybe more resilient than others who may have experienced a shorter duration of abuse,” Ng quips.
“And this is because of a survivor's unique personality. How resilient they are… whether or not they are more optimistic in their personality traits. So, personality and the uniqueness of an individual makeup should also be taken into account.”
She adds that the first step that needs to be taken is to provide more awareness, especially with regard to residential treatment centres where survivors could come together to seek help from professionals in a safe and therapeutic environment.
But it has to be said that altruism, regardless of its positives, can only go so far – Malaysia is slow to deal with incest and CSA in general. It’s telling that prior to 2004, there were no records of incest by the Social Welfare Department, as it categorised such incidences under “other” cases.
Recently the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry revealed that despite 20,000 reports of child sexual abuse cases, the Child Registry database only recoded 107 official cases.
The ministry assured that the registry is updated from time to time. But with 2,500 child abuse cases recorded each year, there seems to be a mismatch between the official numbers and the ministry’s attitude towards these cases.
But with so many loopholes, and with the OSA being used to keep a tight lid on high-profile perpetrators, the journey to shield the country’s children is a long and arduous one. Why? Because it seems that, for now, the adults are covering up for the adults.
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