Threatened, followed and abused: Malaysia urged to make stalking a crime

KUALA LUMPUR (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Writing down the details of Zara Tan's complaint, the female police officer broke off and suddenly asked why the victim didn't just go back to her "sweet and loving" ex-boyfriend.

By that point, Tan had made five reports to Malaysian police detailing how her abusive former boyfriend had stalked her over a one year period.

During this nightmare time, Tan was threatened, followed, harassed at home and work, lost two jobs and her business, and sent a daily barrage of abusive and obscene emails, text messages and phone calls.

"It was extremely horrible. I felt helpless," said Tan, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

"I was constantly looking over my shoulder. During those months I wanted to end my life because I didn't know who to turn to."

"It's not the fault of the police - it is not the culture here to see these things as crimes - they just see it as a domestic thing," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Stalking, which doesn't necessarily involve physical aggression, is often an ongoing pattern of threats and intimidation.

Women are predominantly the targets and the behaviour can lead to sexual violence or murder, women's rights experts said.

Malaysia, like most countries across Asia-Pacific, does not have an anti-stalking law and such behaviour is often culturally seen as a private or a family matter - something not to be discussed openly.

Tan, who dated her former boyfriend for less than a year before he began stalking her, became suicidal and was forced to live temporarily in a women's refuge.

"The mental torture is unexplainable. You don't want to leave the house, you're constantly looking over your shoulder,"Tan said.

"It is worse than physical assault - where the wounds eventually disappear."

MORE ATTENTION

Out of the 36 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, fewer than half have stalking laws. Those that do include Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore, said UN Women.

"I see very few countries paying enough attention to this - similar to femicide - in this region," said Melissa Alvarado, a programme manager at UN Women in Bangkok.

For more Asian countries to adopt stalking laws, there is a need for more data and research on the problem, said Alvarado, adding that without this, the scale of the problem is unknown.

Public awareness campaigns are needed because many women who experience violence are not always sure if what they experienced is a crime so do not report it, she said, adding that this would also help policymakers discuss such issues more openly.

"Some women, and I understand this has also been true in the case of Malaysia, have been stalked and felt terrified and yet police have said 'well, but nothing has actually happened yet',"said Alvarado.

"It may really miss the chance to prevent something awful from happening."

CELEBRITIES

A 2014 study by Universiti Sains Malaysia found that 9 percent of women in Peninsular Malaysia who have ever been in a relationship have experienced domestic violence. This is equivalent to over 900,000 women.

The Southeast Asian nation is ranked 101 out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2018 Global Gender Gap report.

But despite the lack of a stalking law, progress has been made in other areas, said Tengku Aira Tengku Razif, an analyst at the United Nations Population Fund.

Domestic violence laws were strengthened in 2012, while a review of current sexual harassment offences is ongoing and a new law should be approved this year, Tengku Aira said.

In 2017, Malaysia also introduced a sexual offences against children act, which covers grooming and child pornography.

The government has begun early discussions on introducing an anti-stalking law and the views of non-governmental organisations and women's rights groups would be welcomed and taken into account, said Law Minister Liew Vui Keong.

Anyone being stalked or threatened should log the details and go to police to file a report, he said, adding that existing laws can deal with many harassment cases.

"I have read stories in the newspapers about the stalking of ex-wives, ex-girlfriends and even celebrities," said Liew.

"Of course we have to protect the safety of the people who felt they had been threatened," he said, adding that a lack of data made it difficult to grasp the seriousness of the problem.

"It is important that we formulate a law to look into stalking."

STEP FORWARD

Malaysia's Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) provides social work, safe shelter and counselling for women and children who are survivors of violence.

The organisation, which also runs a hot line for abused women, is leading a campaign to pressure policymakers into prioritising the introduction of a stalking law.

Similar to stalking survivor Tan, most cases involved women who had tried to end a relationship with an abusive partner, said Visvanathan.

Police do not take stalking complaints seriously, she said, adding that WAO staff, social workers and their women's refuge had also been stalked after helping survivors.

As well as losing jobs and friends, stalking victims suffer fear and self-blame, and if it goes long enough, it can trigger anxiety and depression, she added.

"Usually the responsibility is on the woman to find a solution - to change her phone number, move address or move states," said Visvanathan. "It's time for Malaysia to step forward and protect women and criminalise this."

For Tan, with support from the WAO and her family she is slowly getting her life back on track with a new job and relationship.

Most importantly, she hasn't been contacted by her stalker for one year and she suspects he is now in a new relationship.

Tan still has nightmares, remains vigilant in public places - scanning a room before taking a seat - and keeps a low profile on social media.

"All my life I've never had regrets but I do wish this had not happened," she said. "I'm hopeful about my life now."