Refugee women in Malaysia are at significant risk of sexual and gender-based violence as a result of their lack of legal status in the country, the normalisation of violence within refugee communities, and the inaccessibility of protection and justice mechanisms, all of which are further exacerbated by xenophobia against refugees.
Drawing on the experiences of refugee women assisted by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), WAO’s latest policy brief, “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Among Refugee Communities in Malaysia”, explores the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence among refugee communities and the obstacles refugee women face in seeking help and accessing justice and protection.
Refugee women are at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence due to their lack of legal status
Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and also lacks any kind of comprehensive framework for refugees and asylum seekers. Thus, refugees in Malaysia – including those registered with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR – are considered illegal immigrants.
As a result of refugees’ lack of legal status in Malaysia – including the lack of the right to work – many refugees are pushed into the informal workforce and have no protections from abuse from their employers, such as inhumane working hours or the withholding of wages.
Refugee women are at particular risk of sexual and gender-based violence and sexual harassment at the hands of employers. Despite this, many refugee women fear reporting such violence and harassment to the police due to the risk of arrest and detention.
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Additionally, the lack of legal recognition and the right to work also results in the economic dependence of refugee women on their partners, making them not only more vulnerable to domestic violence but also making it harder for them to escape it.
Violence within refugee communities is normalised, contributing to sexual and gender-based violence
Based on the experiences of refugee women shared with WAO, deep-rooted patriarchal attitudes, social norms, and practices also contribute to a culture where sexual and gender-based violence comes to be not only commonplace, but accepted.
In workshops conducted by WAO with Rohingya women, participants shared that a husband holds the power over his wife, while in another workshop with Somali women, participants shared that women must be patient with men, and even that a husband hitting his wife was expected.
Such cultural norms make it difficult for refugee women to seek help, since members of the community may normalise sexual and gender-based violence and discourage women from reporting it.
Refugee women have limited access to protection and justice mechanisms and support services for sexual and gender-based violence
Not only are refugee women in Malaysia at increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence, but they simultaneously face multiple barriers in accessing protection and justice available under the law.
While in some cases, refugee women themselves may be reluctant to go to the police to report violence for fear of arrest or detention, in some instances when these women do go to report, their experience reinforces their fears.
In one case of a Rohingya woman whom the WAO assisted in 2020, when she went to the police station to report sexual and gender-based violence, she was detained by the police on the basis of her immigration status and denied her right to lodge a report.
Other barriers to protection and justice faced by refugee women survivors of sexual and gender-based violence include the limited availability of shelters specialising in cases of such violence and which also accept non-citizens and do not require the filing of a police report for admission.
Language barriers also present an obstacle both in the context of crisis hotlines such as Talian Kasih, as well as within police stations, welfare offices and the courts, adding additional layers of difficulty for refugee women trying to escape abusive situations.
Refugee women face limited access to healthcare services for sexual and gender-based violence
In addition to difficulty accessing protection and justice mechanisms, refugee women also face difficulties accessing medical treatment for sexual and gender-based violence.
Even at one-stop crisis centres, which aim to integrate sexual and gender-based violence survivors’ access to treatment and social support services as well as their ability to file a police report all under one roof, differing hospital guidelines results in inconsistent admission requirements.
For example, although making a police report is not a prerequisite to receiving medical support and services within one-stop crisis centres, some hospitals still impose such a requirement: in certain hospitals, survivors who refuse to lodge police reports are turned away or not seen by the doctor unless payment for medical services is made upfront.
Additionally, refugee women are subject to the substantially higher ‘foreigner’ rates for treatment. Although the UNHCR and the Ministry of Health have an agreement to provide a 50% discount for registered refugees with a UNHCR card, these fees are still prohibitive for many refugee women seeking treatment, particularly when they lack the ability to work and are economically reliant on their abusive partners.
Xenophobia exacerbates sexual and gender-based violence against refugee women and hinders their ability to seek help
The higher risk of sexual and gender-based violence for refugee women and the obstacles to getting help are further exacerbated by a larger culture of xenophobia and intolerance towards refugees in Malaysia. Racist attitudes of police, politicians, and even ordinary citizens both in person and online create yet another barrier to refugee women seeking help for sexual and gender-based violence.
Overall, the WAO’s policy brief makes 11 policy recommendations corresponding to the five areas above, including to implement a comprehensive legal framework for refugees and asylum seekers and to grant them the right to work, which would simultaneously reduce the vulnerability of refugee women to sexual and gender-based violence and also help better integrate refugees into Malaysian society.
The full policy brief is available on WAO’s website. WAO’s policy brief and work with sexual and gender-based violence survivors from refugee communities have been supported by UNHCR.