Call to release Penan task force report

By Zedeck Siew (zedecksiew@thenutgraph.com)

PETALING JAYA, 20 April 2009: Women’s and indigenous peoples’ advocacy groups are urging new Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil to release the findings of the 2008 Penan task force.

The task force was commissioned by the ministry under former minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen in October 2008.  It was dispatched to investigate claims that young Penan girls and women have been sexually abused by logging company employees. The claims caused widespread public outcry. However, the task force’s report has not been made public even though it has been five months since the task force completed its investigations.

“We remain confident that the new minister will prioritise the findings of this report,” Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah told The Nut Graph.

Josiah, who was part of the task force, stressed that WAO was concerned that the report’s findings have yet to be made known.

“So long as the report is not shared with the public, the Penan community continues to become more vulnerable,” she said.

“By withholding the report, the government may be guilty of neglecting the community.”

Women’s Centre for Change (WCC) programme director Prema Devaraj, who was also part of the task force, said the release of the findings would help ensure the well-being of Penan women and children.

“The investigations took place and a report has been produced. The government now has a responsibility to disclose the findings to the public,” she stressed.

“The public have a right to know the outcome of the investigation, and what the government plans to do with regards to the information in the report.”

Keeping mum

Mother and child

Apart from WAO and WCC, the task force also consisted of representatives from the police, government ministries such as the home and health ministries, and at least one representative from the indigenous community.

Their fact-finding mission in the Baram district of Sarawak concluded in mid-November. Since then, no action has been taken, and the ministry has kept mum on the subject.

Prema revealed that the ministry submitted the task force’s findings to the cabinet in January. “If there is a delay, it would seem like this issue is not high on the cabinet’s agenda,” she said.

“It is most unfortunate that the issues of the indigenous communities are not given priority, but instead seem to continue to be considered as marginal.”

Describing the release of the task force report as “very important”, Centre for Orang Asli Concerns co-ordinator Dr Colin Nicholas said the government’s delay makes it more likely that the Malaysian public would forget about the issue.

“They are last in the plan and in the minds,” Nicholas said. “Imagine if systematic rapes were committed against an urban Malay [Malaysian] teenager, or a Chinese [Malaysian] model.”

Shahrizat’s office has not answered The Nut Graph’s queries on the report’s status.

Wider issues

Josiah said the task force did not confine itself to the issue of sexual abuse of the Penan community by outsiders.

“We took a more holistic approach. We looked at community needs, including issues of health and education,” she said.

She stressed that the isolation of these indigenous villages, which can be miles away from the nearest urban centre and only accessible by logging roads, made them vulnerable.

Plank leading from a Penan home to outhouse (left); collecting rainwater as there is no proper plumbing

Nicholas stressed that the lack of land rights was the overarching issue when it came to the welfare of the Penan people.

“It is the non-recognition of them as the first peoples on this land, and with it the inherent rights that came with that status. These include the right to their lands, and the right to protect those lands from encroachers and exploiters,” Nicholas explained.

Prema agreed. “They face displacement from their land as their land rights are not recognised. This seriously undermines their culture and their way of life, and impoverishes them,” she said.

According to Prema, when the Penan come into contact with encroachers such as logging companies, they are susceptible to exploitation and abuse. “This is given the power differential which exists between the encroachers, the state authorities and the Penan,” she explained.

“The remoteness of Sarawak’s interior further contributes to the Penan’s isolation and vulnerability,” Prema said, adding that these points have been well documented.

She strongly urged that the task force’s findings “be taken seriously and implemented”.

Josiah called for the government to focus on the “concrete recommendations” in the Penan task force report.

“It is not about laying blame, but accepting responsibility,” she said. “Action should be taken to improve the conditions of these communities.”

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