ANTIDOTE Rohani Abdul Karim, the new minister for women, family and community development, has a greater and more urgent task than simply to “revisit” Penan communities in middle Baram “soon”.
NONEShe intends to study the outcome of recommendations of the ministry’s 2008 task force that had confirmed Penan girls had been sexually violated by loggers.
Rohani (left) appears clueless regarding the systemic failure to address the socio-economic plight of rural women from the Penan and other ethnic groups in Baram.

“During the revisit, we will be going through all the recommendations and see how many have been implemented. For those recommendations that have not been implemented, we will take it from there,” she promised theBorneo Post on July 30.

“Then I can provide a lot of information about the findings because I myself would also like to share what I found (sic) from the revisit.”

Rohani has little grasp of the scope of work of a minister. Her duty is to act, not waffle, on information from her own ministry’s officers as well as stakeholders.

She has a responsibility to push for the federal cabinet to implement the recommendations of the cabinet task force, and the subsequent report by the Penan Support Group, a network of concerned NGOs.

Her role is not to make ceremonial, stage-managed “revisits” to carefully selected Penan communities, or to cut ribbons and attend photo calls. The time for publicity stunts is over.
The cabinet task force, led by her minstry’s secretary-general, completed its investigation in 2008. The report was suppressed until September 2009.

Four years later, Rohani is still talking about meeting members of her own task force.

Two survivors of sexual abuse by loggers travelled to make police reports at Bukit Aman in 2008. Documentary evidence was even presented to the police that a logging camp mechanic, ‘Johnny’ -identified as a rapist by one of the Penan women - was a bigamist.

The police refused to investigate, claiming they had insufficient funds.

Minister lauds CSR

The women’s minster told the Borneo Post that progress has been made, such as the building of schools, transportation and health services.

“Local companies have also helped them through their corporate social responsibility activities,” she reportedly said.

She was referring to the logging companies, including Samling, Shinyang and Interhill, providing lifts for local children to get to school.

She seems unaware of the irony in her praise. Logging truck drivers had told hitch-hiking schoolboys to get off their four-wheel-drive transports, so that the loggers could sexually abuse schoolgirls as young as 10.

Loggers are allowed to operate as they please, with the support of the police, district office and forestry department.

The minister has insulted the people of Baram by claiming these companies help local communities, when in fact they prey on them. The loggers’ main ‘corporate social responsibility actvities’ are to provide financial and logistics support for the ruling political elite.

Long list of wretched failures

A review of the 2008 task force recommendations highlights the government’s wretched failure to address the wider socio-economic issues that have left the people of Baram vulnerable.
The women’s ministry, in a recent answer to a parliamentary question posed by PKR Wanita leader Zuraida Kamaruddin (left), played up its support for NGO work among women in Baram, a limited effort aimed at raising awareness about sexual violence.

However, the ministry’s own task force recommendation - that these education programmes be carried out together with the police, health department and social welfare officers - has been completely ignored.

The task force’s call for the appointment of trustworthy 4WD drivers and state-funded transportation was shouted into the abyss. A single 4WD vehicle, purchased by the Selangor and Penang governments, now transports some students in middle Baram.

“Every year, since 2010, the state government has reported an allocation of RM300,000 for Penan education. Has all this gone into buying pencils for the Penan children?” asked See Chee How, state assemblyperson for Batu Lintang, and a member of the Penan Support Group.

Nothing has come of the call for orientation programmes for new rural teachers, tailored to foster understanding and sensitivity regarding the specific problems faced by Penan students.

For example, boarding students are routinely turfed out of their dormitories during holidays, and left to find their own way to remote villages. Children have accepted lifts on logging trucks to get nearer to home, and have ended up victims of rape, in the giant timber camps dotted throughout Baram.

There has been no increase in the number of Pembantu Pengurusan Murid, as recommended, to allow teachers to take turns accompanying students back to their villages during vacations.

Another proposal, the introduction of cultural elements of the Penan and other indigenous peoples into the formal school curriculum, has similarly fallen on deaf ears.

Failures in health and citizenship

The task force urged better rural health care access. In response, Rohani’s ministry pointed out that the Penan are served by flying doctors.

The Flying Doctor Service or FDS was set up in 1962, and not in response to the Penan rapes. Coverage is once a month at best, usually without doctors on board.
The state’s eight mobile medical service teams, using roads and rivers, and three FDS teams, using helicopters, serve not only Baram, but the entire state: 74 locations and 9,774 Penan people.

The ministry trumpeted theProgram Pemulihan Kanak-Kanak Kekurangan Zat Makanan. This programme to feed poor children has, in fact, been running since 1989.

The government has failed to honour another call, to set up pre-schools for Penan communities throughout Baram.

The task force recommendations on citizenship have not been heeded. There are only two special mobile registration teams in Kuching and Miri, and four more in Sri Aman, Kapit, Bintulu and Betong, established since 2010.

“The Penan settlements are calling for mobile registration teams to come to help them with the registration, but this was not done,” See told Malaysiakini

“I do not think that the National Registration Department officers are ignorant of the location of Penan communities in Baram. This calls into question why the department is setting up mobile teams, even further away.

“Reading the parliamentary answer in the light of the eight recommendations listed in the Task Force Report, we can actually conclude that the government has done nothing to comply.”

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted