Predicament of Penan Women
Visitors to the Penan communities in the interior may be struck by the simplicity of their lives. They still live in harmony with the environment and eat mainly from the forest. However, those visitors will also be impressed by the strength of their Christian religion. Like all Sarawak’s indigenous people they are faithful, practicing Christians who regularly pray and follow the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. They therefore treat their women with respect and do not take more than one spouse.
It is therefore doubly insulting to the Penan people and, indeed, to all Christian tribes in Sarawak, that BN ministers in the government of Abdul Taib Mahmud have sought to dismiss evidence about the frequent rapes and abuses of Penan women by loggers, by calling it an example of ‘promiscuous behaviour’ and ‘lying’ by the women themselves.
In a shocking recent interview, Land Minister James Masing alleged to BBC UK journalists that Penan women are ‘naturally promiscuous’ and ‘normally start relationships as young as twelve‘. He also claimed the Penan are ‘very good storytellers’. Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu has likewise announced that the evidence of several attacks ‘a waste of time to investigate’.
Living in fear
The Penan are being intimidated by gangs of loggers, often foreign workers, who are intruding on their native lands. The timber companies have heavy vehicles, chainsaws and weapons and they have destroyed the rainforests and the rivers so they no longer provide enough food, materials and medicine for the local people.
But it is the women who live in most danger from these outsiders, who come to prey on their villages when the men are out hunting or attack hitch-hikers looking for transport to towns and schools. Yet, Taib Mahmud and his BN party supporters don’t admit to these problems, because they want to continue to enjoy profits from the valuable timber rights, which they have corruptly sold to their business cronies. So, instead of sending police to investigate the crimes and protect the women, they have been sending police to intimidate them and threaten them against speaking to journalists.
The BN attempt to cover up the truth
The failure by the Sarawak government to even investigate the scandal caused an official investigation to be carried out last year by the Federal Malay Ministry for Women. Afterwards, Taib Mahmud and his BN ministers spent months using all their influence to try and keep the investigation’s report secret. Finally, after a year of complaints and demonstrations, the truth was made public in September. The federal report revealed strong evidence of numerous rape attacks, many of them on young girls trying to get to school, some of them as young as 10 years old. A number of babies have been born as a result of this abuse.
The federal investigators also reported on a number of cases where logging workers have been pressuring Penan girls into entering unwilling relationships with them. Certain managers in the logging firms have been indulging themselves by keeping up to three ‘wives’ in this way. The Penan communities have made representations to at least one such abuser to choose one wife and leave the others alone, however he has dismissed their concerns.
As one desperate father explained to journalists
“the loggers have taken away our lands, so they think they can take everything, even our daughters“.
BN’s failure to act
In spite of the findings of the official federal report, BN Ministers have continued to refuse to take steps to bring the attackers to justice. Instead they have carried on insulting the Penan and their women, blaming them for these problems. Surely a government that no longer protects its people has no longer any right to govern?
Under the new SCORE development plans announced in January over half a million more Sarawakians will be pressed from their lands in the same way, so that BN ministers can exploit their territories. These people should fear similar treatment if they get in the way of BN’s plans.