Judicial caning not helpful in addressing sexual violence


Jolene Tan, head of advocacy and research, AWARE

Published: 4:00 AM, January 12, 2017

Recent letters have expressed views on the use of judicial caning for sexual offenders (“Review age limit for caning sentences”; Jan 6, and “Relook need for corporal punishment”; Jan 9).

Sexual violence of any form must be taken seriously. Clients of our Sexual Assault Care Centre (SACC) — which supports women who have faced sexual assault, including molest — have shared their experiences of the long-term psychological and emotional impact of these experiences, including fear, anxiety, flashbacks, and difficulties with relationships and intimacy.

As sexual violence is most often committed by someone known to the victim, it can also distort their sense of self and disfigure how they view the world around them.

We must thus avoid the characterisation of molest as “touching with no lasting damage”, to use Mr Terence Lim’s words. Such dismissive language can strongly dissuade individuals from seeking help regarding their experiences, potentially worsening the long-term trauma.

However, we disagree with Mr Liew Kai Khiun that judicial caning is necessary or helpful in addressing sexual violence.

Violent punishments such as caning may contribute to normalising rather than reducing a culture of violence. They suggest to the public that authority and norms are rightly established through physical domination. Caning older people, as Mr Liew suggests, would be particularly disturbing because it involves applying violence to people who — wrongdoings notwithstanding — are vulnerable.

In fact, we agree with Mr Terence Lim that the current approach of applying this punishment to men is rooted in sexism. The idea that men in particular can only be “controlled” by applying pain and physical domination can actually feed into a culture that fails to take sexual violence seriously, because male aggression is wrongly seen as “natural”.

We also question whether there is detailed evidence proving that judicial caning is truly a more effective deterrent than other measures such as prison terms, fines, community service and restorative justice measures such as restitutionary agreements.

Indeed, the prospect of harsh punishments has, in fact, deterred some sexual-assault survivors from reporting, particularly when the perpetrator is known to them — thus reducing the chances of bringing the offender to justice.

Based on SACC’s experience, a more urgent priority is to further improve the victim’s experiences of legal and criminal procedures. If they can be better supported through the processes of reporting, investigating and prosecuting, more of them are likely to come forward and sustain their involvement all the way to conviction. Improving the chances of securing convictions will do more to promote deterrence than imposing harsh penalties.

We urge the government to move towards restorative justice and more victim-centric legal processes. What victims and society at large need is a fair criminal justice system that reassures them that the perpetrators will be held accountable for their acts, regardless of the nature of the crime. This accountability need not and should not mean brutality.