Home 2009: 8 From exploitative “development” to sexual exploitation

From exploitative “development” to sexual exploitation

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One of the big problems in the two north Borneo states is the exploitative development that has caused havoc especially in the interior of the region. Prema Devaraj looks at how this exploitation has extended to the sexual exploitation of marginalised indigenous girls and women. A more holistic and sustainable development model is needed to put an end to it.

It took a year for the allegations of sexual abuse of Penan women and children, which first came to light in September 2008, to be confirmed. The Malaysian public were told “Yes, it’s true” in September 2009 when the report from the National Taskforce investigating these allegations was finally made public (1). Again, just like a year ago, we heard a round of calls for perpetrators to be brought to justice, denials by some Sarawak State officials and their supporters with counter accusations of bad NGOs and third party interference plus the usual NGO “non-cooperation” accusations by the police (2, 3).

So what do we know?

Yes, there have been incidences of sexual abuse/sexual exploitation of Penan women and children in the Baram region. However the full extent of these abuses/exploitation (i.e. the number of incidences and different indigenous communities affected) has not yet been determined. The situation seems complex with a variety of occurring scenarios (1).

•    There are cases of molestation by drivers when children board vehicles on their journey to or from school.
•    There are incidences of rape of women by employees of the logging camps.
•    Then there are also instances of young women living in poverty in the interiors being enticed into sexual activity with promises of a better life in the city, or with promises of a job in the city or simply with gifts of cash or kind, sometimes given to their parents.
•    There are also women who marry employees of the logging company only to be deserted once the logging company ceases operations in that particular area (4).
•    There are allegations of government officials who demand ‘a girl for the evening’ when they visit long houses (5).

These incidences are not just recent happenings – they have been going on for a few years now. Why has it taken so long for it to surface?

Difficulty of the victims

Disclosing incidences of sexual assault or exploitation can be extremely difficult for many victims. It can take a long time for someone to disclose an incident (if at all) depending on a variety of factors including how fearful they are, the level of support they have and the level of trust they have for the people around them.

Disclosing an incident of sexual abuse or exploitation to someone is very different from wanting to lodge a police report about it. Some victims may not want to go public about their victimization. Facing the criminal justice system can be daunting and some may fear the possibility of repercussions from the perpetrators. Some just want to let people know that it is happening and hopefully someone will do something about it.

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Accessing help from state authorities when one lives in the interiors of Sarawak can be extremely difficult.  Many indigenous communities are living in remote areas, often lacking in basic infrastructure and facilities. The existing poverty levels make it difficult for them to afford independent travel to the closest town to lodge complaints to the authorities. Their isolation, combined with the poverty levels often result in many of them being dependent on the logging companies (who employ some of the alleged perpetrators) in their area for basic transport and other amenities.

Added to this is the palpable lack of trust many indigenous communities have towards state authorities and agencies (5). So although the victims or their families may have come into contact with state authorities or agencies, they may not have disclosed the incidents to them. Some claim state authorities/school authorities do not believe them. Others have alleged that state authorities have close links with the logging companies with retired government personnel being placed in charge of security or given senior positions in the companies. Worse still are the claims that some state agency representatives are directly involved in the sexual exploitation of women. How has this situation arisen?

The local situation

Over the last 20 years (at least), the Sarawak state government has pursued a concept of development where land is viewed as a resource which should be exploited for maximum commercial benefit. This has meant that land has been ‘developed’ by various projects including deforestation, logging, mining, oil palm plantation development, tree plantation and infrastructure, hydroelectric projects and tourist developments.

Many of these projects have encroached upon and destroyed native customary land. This approach to land usage and development is in stark contrast with the indigenous peoples’ concept of land stewardship and their relationship to the land. It has resulted in an ongoing battle between indigenous communities and the state government over the rights to native customary land on which development projects have been planned and implemented (6).

Over the years, many indigenous communities have protested these types of land ‘development’ schemes which have destroyed their land, their livelihoods and their culture. Many have taken (or tried to take) their cases to court.  But by and large, their claims to native customary land rights have been ignored or lost.  There are numerous accounts of how the state government was quick to mobilise police, special field forces, forest department officials and amended laws to push this type of ‘development’ through. Indigenous peoples who protested were treated as ‘obstacles’ to development especially those who erected blockades. It was common to hear of indigenous peoples being arrested, harassed, subjected to ill treatment with the use of physical force, tear gassed and imprisoned (6). The most recent incident was the arrest of a group of indigenous people and activists who wanted to hand over a petition to the Chief Minister of Sarawak regarding the proposed Murum Dam, which will see about a thousand indigenous people being uprooted from their homes on native customary land and resettled elsewhere (7,8).

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The lack of recognition of native customary land rights by the state government, the many amendments to land legislation which resulted in the curtailment of native customary claims and the often painful experience of land development schemes has left many indigenous communities disillusioned and distrustful of the state government’s intentions towards them (9). Their mistrust is exacerbated by the activities of some private companies engaged in a variety of ‘land development’ schemes (sanctioned by the state government) which have behaved in an utterly disrespectful and unaccountable manner when it comes to native customary rights matters (9). In many instances, the indigenous communities have had to negotiate with these companies instead of the state regarding their native customary claims.

This tenacious pursuing of ‘development’ by the state has resulted not only in a loss of trust of the indigenous people towards them but worse,  an enormous power differential between state authorities (including their corporate partners/local consortiums) and the indigenous communities. Many of the indigenous communities have been left in an extremely vulnerable position — displaced from their land, culture and security.

Contextualising the sexual exploitation

The sexual exploitation of indigenous women in the interiors of Sarawak should be viewed against a background of indigenous people being displaced from their land, culture and security. It is a direct consequence of a model of development which disregards the rights of indigenous communities. The existing power differential between the state and the indigenous people in the interiors of Sarawak has created a situation where many indigenous communities continue to be isolated, live in poverty (10), are disempowered and are marginalised. They are thus easily exploitable, including the occurrence of sexual abuse or exploitation of their women and children.

Are protests anti-development?

If the commercial exploitation of land in Sarawak is placing people at risk, are we then saying stop all development? Are indigenous peoples against genuine development? Are NGO types trying to keep indigenous people in the forest? Far from it. Indigenous people want development and a future for their children. But, as aptly put by an indigenous person, “Development does not mean stealing our land, our culture and our dignity as human beings. That is not development, but theft.” (9)

One has to ask that if the commercialisation of land is the only way of progress, why is it that so many indigenous peoples still do not have decent access to health, education, identity documents and infra-structure? So, really, who does this type of development benefit?

There are of course state-conducted poverty eradication programmes and other measures taken by the state to address some of the problems indigenous peoples face. But these efforts are insufficient and hampered by a lack of respect towards indigenous peoples and their cultures (5). The government claims they are bringing indigenous people into the mainstream of development and that indigenous people must “change their attitudes” (9).

But what does this really mean to the indigenous people? They have seen the impact of measuring development purely in terms of economic growth. With the variety of development projects implemented in Sarawak including the hydro-electric dams, deforestation and plantation schemes, many have witnessed a growing social injustice, an amplified gap between the rich and the poor, more environmental degradation, less sustainable use of resources, and a loss of autonomy over their own lives.

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These types of development projects have resulted in family and community breakdown, social dislocation, alienation and a degradation of moral and spiritual values, as well as, a loss of their culture (9). If indigenous communities have seen this why then should they follow the same concept of development? It is no wonder that they protest this type of development.

The way forward

We urgently need to seek alternatives to the present concept of development that is being pursued. We need an alternative model where indigenous people are placed in control of their lives and their future, where they are consulted, where issues such as social equity, morality, sustainability, food security, sound environmental management become part of the equation of development, where there is respect for adat, culture, local experiences and skills (11).

There is no shortage of guidelines or principles for one to act on. We have a long list including:

•    the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948;
•    the Federal Constitution of Malaysia 1957;
•    the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) 1979;
•    the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) 1989;
•    the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of Sarawak, Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia 1993;
•    the Malaysian Human Rights Charter 1994;
•    the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007 and so on.

We cannot continue to keep silent for then we become complicit in what is happening. Our voices of protest must be loud enough to be heard and also constructive enough to create the change we want for this country and for fellow Malaysians, including our indigenous sisters and brothers. Will we rise to this challenge?

1.    Laporan Jawatankuasa Bertindak Peringkat Kebangsaan Bagi Menyiasat Dakwaan Penderaan Seksual Terhadap Wanita Kaum Penan di Sarawak (2009)  (www.jpw.gov.my)
2.    NST, 25 Sept 2009 ‘Penan sex claim is baseless, says Jabu’
3.    The Star, 15 Sept 2009, ‘Cops: NGOs not helping’
4.    NST 5 Oct 2008, ‘Loggers marry Penan Women’
5.    Conversations with local and indigenous activists
6.    ‘Not development but theft’ – The testimony of Penan communities in Sarawak (2000)
7.    The Star, 17 Sept 2009, ‘Murum Penans face eviction’
8.    The Borneo Post, 17 Sept 2009, ‘Dam protestors held for illegal assembly’
9.    ‘Tanah pengidup kitai (Our land is our livelihood): The undermining of indigenous land rights and the victimisation of indigenous people in Sarawak’ (1999)
10.    ‘Penan in Ulu Belaga: Right to land and socio-economic development’, Suhakam (2007)
11.    ‘Legal Perspectives on Native Customary Land Rights in Sarawak’, Suhakam (2008)

Dr Prema, an Aliran exco member, is the Programme Director of Women’s Centre for Change (WCC).


The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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