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What’s the link between societal attitudes on violence against women and impact on survivors’ help-seeking behaviours? Insights from a Malaysian perspective.

While research on public attitudes and perceptions on issues such as gender equality and violence against women (VAW) is recognised internationally as a necessary and required measure to address inequality, the usefulness of these surveys in Malaysia remains contentious. In 2021, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), a well-known NGO for women in Malaysia, conducted a survey on public attitudes and perceptions to determine Malaysians’ beliefs and understandings on gender equality and VAW. To support the argument of the need for this type of effort, WAO conducted complementary in-depth interviews with sixteen survivors of different types of violence, as the attitudes measured in the survey would ultimately influence survivors and their help-seeking journeys the most.

As part of the research team that undertook those efforts, this blog unpacks the rationale behind the decision, and explores the link between a society’s attitudes and how it ultimately impacts survivors, with examples drawn from our survivor interviews.

Why measure public attitudes?

When we measure public attitudes, we are trying to use these attitudes as proxies for social norms or behaviours and beliefs that society deems acceptable or permissible. The questions in a public attitudes survey are statements that respondents can either agree or disagree with.  If you have collected a representative and sufficiently large sample, which most experts will generally agree is 1,000 respondents for large populations, you can reasonably assume that what you have measured reflects the opinions of the population[1]. Therefore, it can be extrapolated as a measure of what prevailing beliefs form the fabric of social norms in a particular society. Undoubtedly, for many observers, a larger population is more ideal, but under the constraints of conducting this study as an NGO, we have stuck to the number of 1,000 respondents and ensured that our sample is nationally representative by adhering to the latest available census data in terms of gender, age, socio-economic status and regional distribution.

While social norms undoubtedly affect how everyone in a society behaves, social norms around VAW will have the most impact on survivors, particularly their decision and ability to both seek and receive help.

We based our survey on the Australian National Community Attitudes Survey (NCAS), which is conducted by the government every four years to measure  or regression in attitudes towards gender equality, and VAW. However, we added our own measures for issues relevant to the Malaysian context such as rape, including marital rape, child marriage and awareness of available sources of support for survivors. Our survey found that only about half of Malaysians were likely to support gender equality (46.3%) and oppose violence endorsing attitudes (52.7%), i.e. attitudes that trivialise, justify or excuse the violence women experience or blame women in any way for this violence.

But how do these attitudes impact survivors?

Concurrently, we interviewed sixteen survivors of various forms of violence, including domestic violence, intimate partner violence [2], sexual assault and/or rape, stalking and sexual harassment, to better understand their help- seeking experiences. These survivors were between 20 and 47 years old at the time of the interview. We acknowledge that the experiences of these survivors are not representative of the help-seeking behaviours of all Malaysian survivors. These survivors are particularly unique because they reached out to us, an NGO that specifically offers guidance and support to survivors. Nevertheless, these narratives can provide an important piece of the puzzle in the context of societal attitudes and the impact on help-seeking.

When we place the survey results in the context of our survivors’ experiences, we see that patterns emerge. In our interviews, survivors repeatedly mention one of two things:

  1. Telling someone about the violence they experienced and having that experience doubted;
  2. Hesitating before they told someone what they experienced for fear of being doubted.

This is an umbrella issue which we refer to as “Mistrusting women’s reports of violence.”

Figure 1. Mistrusting women’s reports of violence, as measured by the amount of excerpts coded as survivors having their reports mistrusted or their internal recognition that reports of violence are mistrusted. [3].

This looks like [4]:

  1. Sexual harassment survivor who waited to seek help because she wasn’t sure who would trust her.
  2. Stalking survivor who, when she reported what happened to her, was questioned, “Oh this was only on social media right? You aren’t [physically] injured – you didn’t experience anything, right?”
  3. Sexual assault survivor who was questioned, “Are you sure you weren’t a willing participant?”

The relationship between community attitudes and a survivor’s help-seeking behaviour can be conceptualised through the socio-ecological model:

Figure 2. The socioecological model which demonstrates how societal attitudes can permeate every layer.

This shows how  a widespread attitude  in a society creates a structural tendency to distrust the survivors’ experiences of violence. Consequently, this leads to formal support systems that cannot adequately address the needs of survivors. On an interpersonal and individual level, this can be seen as individuals around the survivor  reacting discouragingly when the survivor seeks help. As a result, survivors may fear that they will be mistrusted, leading them to underreport the violence they have experienced.

So how does this link back to the survey?

Figure 3. Examples of some of the problematic attitudes and beliefs we found in our study on Malaysian public attitudes and perceptions towards VAW.

The value of studying public attitudes is it gives a roadmap as to where the problematic attitudes and beliefs lie.

From our survey, we know there is a tendency amongst the Malaysian population  to endorse rape myths, i.e. misconceptions about why VAW happens. A strong tendency to endorse rape myths  leads to  excusing the perpetrator and viewing violence as an emotional reaction of the victim that she herself must learn to  cope with and mitigate. Finally, the Malaysian public’s  awareness of the  complexity of violent relationships  is generally low. For example, the belief that the survivor is often to blame; and that it is not difficult to leave an abusive relationship.

What were some of the challenges we encountered?

One of the biggest challenges we encountered with this project was the sheer scale of it. Many public societal attitudes studies are conducted by large teams over a period of years, whereas WAO had less than a year to  not only design and conduct the survey, but also the survivor interviews with survivors and the accompanying descriptive analyses of both. We know that the data we have collected is rich, but we have not yet had the opportunity to fully analyse all of our data.

We are still in the midst of completing our qualitative report – a portion of the data shared here. The deeper types of quantitative analyses we hope to do is, admittedly, something we may need further capacity building and skills training in, but we look forward to seeing what insights we can draw from our data.

But what does all of this mean?

Survivors know what they want to see from frontline responders.

Figure 4. What survivors want to see from frontline responders.

Simply put, we as a society need to do better by our survivors. We need to  address the problematic attitudes, the attitudes  that perpetuate and allow  mistrust in survivors, and we need to work to address them.  Ultimately, these attitudes arise  in societies where there is a power imbalance between genders, where men have more power, allowing narratives to favour men. These constructs contribute to the attitudes we are seeing,  especially mistrust of women, and mistrust of women’s reports of violence.

We need to go back to where these attitudes take root, identify and address them because survivors deserve to be helped and believed. This should form the basis of violence prevention efforts in Malaysia.

Conclusion

The data on public attitudes and perceptions towards violence against women and gender equality, and the insights that can be drawn from it, are invaluable. We call for more efforts like this to be funded and undertaken, especially by the Malaysian government as part of its national action plan to combat violence against women.

About WAO

Since 1982, Women’s Aid Organisation has provided free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. We help women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities. Learning from women’s experiences, we advocate to improve public policies and shift public mindsets. Together, we change lives. For enquiries, you may contact us at info@wao.org.my. You may also contact the author of this blogpost at anis@wao.org.my. WAO’s research can be viewed on our website.

This blog was written as part of the SVRI Forum 2022 blog series by bursary recipients.

Written by Anis Farid, Research and Advocacy Officer, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

[1] How to choose a sample size (for the statistically challenged) – tools4dev

[2] Note: In a Malaysian context, domestic violence refers to acts which fall under the Domestic Violence Act 1994, which covers married partners and children and acts of violence which are physical, emotional, psychological, sexual, financial, and/or social, whereas violence between unmarried partners falls under ‘intimate partner violence.’

[3] Note: For some types of violence, the count appears to be 0. This does not mean that this issue was not experienced by these survivors. As the interviews were open-ended, these issues were not specifically probed and would only be mentioned if survivors felt it was relevant to their help-seeking.

[4] Note: These are real experiences captured by our interviews

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