The Penan rapes
Testimonies from survivors of alleged sexual abuse by loggers in the Penan Support Group (PSG) fact-finding mission make for unsettling reading.
The report, alleging sexual abuse of Penan girls and women by loggers, was released in Parliament today by the PSG, a coalition of 36 NGOs.
Penan girls and women are vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation because of the influx of timber tracks and loggers to forests surrounding their villages, and the grossly unequal power relationships that ensue.
According to the PSG report, J is a 23-year-old Penan. As the only daughter in her family, sometimes she would be left alone at home while other family members went out hunting. According to J, many loggers would often visit her village, and sometimes they would be drunk and “create chaos”.
J was raped when she was 14 by a logger. The logger, in his 30s, had proposed marriage but she had refused him. One night he returned to J’s house and raped her. J did not tell her family about the rape because she was afraid the logger might kill her family.
He persisted in his proposals even after the alleged rape, telling her that “you have already slept with me, it’s better for you if you marry me.” Eventually she gave in to his demands for her to marry him, as she was worried for her family’s safety.
J says the logger abused her physically and psychologically. If she refused him sex, he would beat her, sometimes with a stick. When she fell pregnant in 2003, he sent her back to her village and then he disappeared.
J did not want to return to the camp to look for him because, she said, “I don’t know how to get there and I don’t want to see him again.” She is looking after her child, now seven. She feels the logger has ruined her life and does not want to re-marry, because she does not trust men.
She wants to focus her energy on her child. She hopes the child will go to school and then help protect the Penan community from exploitation by outsiders.
C, now 24, was tricked into marrying a logger when she was 17. The logger told her he was single, and persuaded her to allow her village headman to conduct a ceremonial, unregistered, marriage.
The logger’s fellow workers later told C he was already married and had four children. He denied this, but disappeared later when C was three months pregnant.
C remains angry with the man because he cheated her. She married a Penan man in 2007, and has a two-year-old daughter with him. Her husband treats her well, though she remains worried about money to educate her children.
C says camp workers often come to her village in groups of three or four, looking to “main perempuan” (harass girls).
Under Section 375 (c) of the Criminal Procedure Code, procuring a sexual relationship under the pretense of promising to marry a person, when in fact the perpetrator is already married, falls under “misconception of fact” – a criminal offence of rape, even if consent is obtained.
A was abducted, together with her sister, after two logging employees broke into their house in 2001. The sisters were forced into a vehicle and taken to a logging camp.
A was separated from her sister in the camp. She was beaten and raped almost daily for a week. Someone in authority at the camp discovered her plight and sent her back to her village. She was pregnant by then.
Currently, A’s elder sister has been caring for A’s child, since A gave birth. A is ill and cannot work. She has not seen the logger since escaping from the camp and has remained single. She considered making a police report but could not, because she simply did not know how, and did not have the money to travel to the police station.
The headman and villagers went to the camp following A’s escape home, but were unable to find A’s sister, or the loggers who had abducted them.
A’s sister, who had been taken to the logging camp together with her, is still missing. A is uncertain, but thinks her missing sister might still be in the camp.
E was abducted on a motorcycle and raped by two men in a logging camp in 1996. Following her abduction and rape, her fellow villagers found her in the camp.
They took the two loggers to the village and locked them in a house there, but the foreman and a group of loggers came and broke the lock and freed the two captives.
Most of the villagers were angry, but they felt they could do nothing because the logging company was “too powerful” and the police would always take their side.
The other three cases all involved loggers – Iban, Chinese or Indonesian, from outside the survivors’ area.
The other survivors also recounted common features of violence, abduction, cheating, exploitation or abandonment once the Penan woman became pregnant.
Systematic sexual abuse by loggers continues in Sarawak despite denials by the state government with seven additional Penan victims coming forward to seek justice.
The Penan Support Group (PSG), a coalition of 36 NGOs, released an intricately researched report in Parliament today, describing the distressing ordeals of the Penan women and their communities.
The hard-hitting report said the sexual crimes are “allowed to flourish” because of widespread poverty, deprivation of land rights, citizenship and basic services, as well as lack of respect for rural communities, their autonomy and their calls for justice.
The PSG also highlighted the failure of authorities to respond to the shocking findings of a national ministerial task force.
The task force report, initially kept under wraps by the cabinet, was finally made public last September by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, after coming under pressure from PKR Women’s chief Zuraida Kamaruddin.
The ministry’s task force had confirmed eight instances of loggers sexually abusing Penan girls and women, including a 10-year-old schoolgirl.
The PSG’s own fact-finding mission ensued after the police reneged on a promise to investigate the sexual attacks by loggers, claiming a lack of funds.
The PSG visited Long Lamam, Long Ajeng and Long Mobui, over a week last November, and heard testimonies from members of 13 Penan communities gathered there, from Middle and Upper Baram.
The seven sexual abuse survivors interviewed by the PSG had never been documented previously. The youngest said she was only 14 when she was attacked. These seven women are further additions to the eight girls and women reported by the ministry’s national task force.
The rapes of the Penan have drawn international condemnation, but have been brushed off by state ministers.
Chief Minister Taib Mahmud warned angrily, “check your information or you will be suspected by the decent people of Sarawak of trying to sabotage us”.
Land Development Minister James Masing told the BBC that “the Penan are very good story-tellers” and suggested that the Penan are promiscuous at a young age.
Daud Abdul Rahman, a deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs, was more concise: “To me, the reports of the sexual abuse of Penans are not true”.
Wider context of abuse
The PSG fact-finding mission brought in representatives from the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Tebtebba and the Asian Indigenous Women’s Network, the Malaysian Bar Council, Suaram and the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns and Sarawakian NGOs.
“The mission found that women were willing to share their stories, but they did not want to go to the authorities owing to the police’s lackadaisical responses in the past and further obstacles including the lack of identity cards, language barriers and the prohibitive cost of travel,” said John Liu (left) of Suaram.
The PSG report portrayed a pattern of sexual violence, with the common themes of rape, deception, abduction, beatings, emotional abuse, coercion into fake marriages and desertion upon pregnancy.
The loggers were said to have behaved like predators: they intruded into Penan villages at will, entering houses without consent, or abducting their victims and taking them to logging camps.
The PSG underscored the wider context of the loggers’ intrusion into native lands that has facilitated the sexual crimes and has further impoverished rural Sarawakian communities.
“Logging and other land exploitation has not just cost communities, like the Penans loss of control over land…but also loss of control over decisions affecting their present and future lives,” the report argued.
“The close relationship between timber companies and the ruling political elite – ‘timber politics’ – has long been acknowledged and many have argued that this has meant that the political will to monitor and enforce the law, to ensure sustainable and legal forestry practices, is fatally compromised.”
The report pointed out criticisms of Sarawak’s poor monitoring of logging and low standards of forestry, including those outlined in the 2008 Auditor-General’s Report.
“Logging is extensive, lucrative and in the hands of a few companies close to the ruling political elite,” the report stated.
“There is the argument that tax evasion has diverted much of the resource exploitation proceeds from the state (which could then have been used for capital accumulation or poverty alleviation programmes) to the pockets of politicians and corporations.”
The PSG quoted Suhakam’s 2007 account of the neglect of the rights of Sarawak’s indigenous people:
“While Suhakam recognises that logging and oil palm plantation activities contribute to the country’s development, it appears that the Penans do not benefit from this.
“Rather, logging, oil palm plantation and forestry activities have added constraints on the development of the Penans and has further displaced this community given their distinct economic, social and cultural life… the survival, livelihood and development of the Penans is further stunted as a majority of them live in abject poverty.”
The PSG described endemic lawlessness in Baram, because the logging companies are let loose to do as they please.
“Attempts to protect their land and their land rights, culture and future sustainability (have) often brought the Penans into conflict with both state authorities and logging companies, such conflict being often conducted with threats and intimidation… and on occasion with actual violence,” the PSG report said.
“This environment of violence gives an important wider context to the sexual violence perpetrated against Penan women and girls,” the PSG explained.
The PSG’s recommendations included a royal commission into indigenous people’s land issues.
The PSG urged concrete action to improve extremely poor access to health, education, national registration, transportation and clean water.
It called on the federal and state governments to adopt a new model of development, one that incorporates respect for these rural communities’ values, culture and rights to self-determination and redress.
The PSG also asked for action by intergovernmental bodies, Parliament and the state assembly, Suhakam, Bursa Malaysia, and local NGOs to provide impetus to reform land rights and stop violence against rural indigenous communities.
The report concluded that “the way forward is simply to reverse the lack of respect and protection. A starting point is suggested by the remark by one of the women from Long Item: ‘The ultimate solution is to revoke the logging licences.’”
Photos: Penan Support Group