Thursday, May 28, 2009

Verbal abuse to be legislated as part of domestic violence in Malaysia?


Since nowadays I hardly have the time to surf through the internet for news on Malaysia, I rely a lot on my Facebook friends to update me on something interesting.

Today, someone posted a link from The Star on the proposal to include verbal abuse as part of the Domestic Violence Act. Of course, as usual, the post attracted the attention of some witty fellow friends who couldn’t help but add humour to it. The Star is partly to be blamed for “belittling” the issue by giving it a title “Telling your wife she’s not pretty may soon be an offence”.

Naturally, verbal abuse is not quite the same as making unflattering remarks.

I don’t know exactly how far this proposal has gone or whether it will ever be adopted but it would be interesting to read the actual draft and even more interesting to know about the drafting process itself.

In Malaysia, whenever there is a legal proposal related to women’s rights, one can almost always guarantee protest to the extent of insensitive sexist remarks coming from a specific group of people; well, usually men; may it be law makers or religious authorities.

Mind you, we’re not exactly like many countries in the Middle East, Africa or Asia where women’s rights are considered as taboos but the fact that we still do not have a law against marital rape should explain that we’re not exactly there yet.

So, this proposal is particularly interesting. According to those who made the proposal, verbal abuse is as equally damaging as physical abuse. To many extent, I agree that emotional trauma can have a deeper and longer impact than physical violence. There is a famous saying, sticks and stones may break my bone, but words will kill me.

I found this from an article written by Patricia Evans, Verbal Abuse Precedes Domestic Violence:

Domestic violence is about the control of one human being by another. This control begins with verbal abuse and is similar to mind control. Verbal abuse attacks one’s spirit and sense of self. Verbal abuse attempts to create self doubt. "You don’t know what you’re talking about," "You don’t have a sense of humour," "You can’t take a joke," "You’re too sensitive," "You’re crazy."

Verbal abuse so controls ones mind that some women who have left a verbally and sometimes physically abusive relationship twenty or more years ago still find themselves wondering, "Maybe there’s something I could have done...," or, "Maybe if I’d tried to explain just one more time my relationship would have gotten better." 

While I think it’s a brave and commendable move to regulate verbal abuse, the ultimate challenge facing the victim, offender and members of the judiciary is the burden of proof. It’s hard enough to prove domestic violence when there is an absence of visible marks or scars in cases where women often fail to report the abuse on time, what more verbal abuse? It’s basically my words against yours.

I tend to see verbal abuse and physical violence as similar to rape and sexual harassment because in the end, it’s difficult to draft and implement such law and there are many issues to be considered. 

1) Definition – What is considered as verbal abuse as opposed to “unflattering” or offensive remarks?

For example: Is there a difference between “You’re full of crap”,“Move your fat ass, bitch!”, “You’re a worthless piece of shit!” and “I swear I’ll kill you one day!”?

Sexual harassment is typically defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment. It doesn’t matter whether the offender is aware of his/her action, as long as it makes the victim uncomfortable, it’s considered as harassment.

Would this also apply to verbal abuse? Would it then make a difference if a husband makes a remark as a joke and with no intention to offend? If this is the case, does the wife have the responsibility to tell the husband that such remark hurts her feelings?

Let’s face it, a lot of women, particularly those who have been brought up in conservative societies are likely to take insensitive remarks without much protest.

2) Proof -  Like sexual harassment, verbal abuse will be difficult to prove unless a woman is vigilant enough to wire tape herself before being subjected to verbal aggression or if such abuse takes place in a public place.

Again, in a society such as Malaysia, couples are often careful when it comes to creating a scene in public. Chances are, it will happen at home. Even then, family members tend to turn a deaf ear when it comes to matters between a husband and wife.

3) Victims – Who will be considered as real victims of verbal abuse and according to what and whose standard? What if one woman is particularly more vulnerable than the other?

Will this law apply to men as well or we just assume that women are incapable of verbal abuse and men are simply too “macho” to get hurt?

4) Implementation – would police officers take verbal abuse report seriously or they’ll just simply laugh it off? Even if they don’t, how does one tell an officer that she has been verbally abused without feeling embarrassed or silly, unless it’s a death threat?

Women often don’t report far greater physical abuse for precisely the same reason. They feel shameful and often guilty for allowing herself to be beaten up. Unsurprisingly, they expect police officers not to understand or sympathise with them.

5) Punishment – How do you punish an offender to make sure that it’s fair, adequate and proportionate to the crime committed?

I was curious to know how many countries have legislated such law. It wasn’t easy to find and surprisingly Sierra Leone is one of them. I couldn’t find other more credible jurisprudence yet and I think it’s important to see how this law is being implemented and how effective it is.

The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women within the community as ‘physical, sexual and psychological violence within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, educational institutions and elsewhere, and trafficking in women and forced prostitution’. It doesn’t go as far as to spell out verbal abuse.

To sum this up, I acknowledge the harmful impact of verbal abuse and the need to address this issue. At the same time, I also acknowledge how such laws need to be drafted as carefully as possible in order to make a real impact and to avoid any  risk of abuse.

Needless to say, I also think that if we are genuinely concerned about the danger and “criminality” of verbal abuse, then we should also think about children who are being subjected to similar threats; may it be at home or in school.

It’s hardly fair to assume that only women suffer from it.