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Here are some women’s groups in Malaysia that have persisted in their quest to fight for equal rights and address gender discrimination.
Malaysian women did not have to fight for the right to vote but they still face discrimination that needs to be addressed and redressed.
Women’s organisations have played a pivotal role, and have been at the forefront of championing for a more just society, beginning with the formation of the National Council of Women’s Organisations Malaysia in 1962.
In the 1980s, women’s groups rallied together as the coalition Joint Action Group (JAG) to lobby on the issue of domestic violence. It took 11 years of persistence to bring about the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) in 1994.
But more importantly, the campaign broke the silence on and challenged practices and values that subjugate women and render them vulnerable to abuse. Women’s groups have also been most proactive in supporting victims of gender violence.
These non-governmental organisations have also worked tirelessly to campaign on other issues affecting women such as rape, sexual harassment, extension of maternity leave and equal rights. Many have also extended their advocacy and services to include protecting children.
JAG also championed the inclusion of “gender” under Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution in 2001 to ensure the protection of gender equality as a basic right. The coalition was also instrumental in Malaysia ratifying the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) in 1995.
These are the three most proactive women organisations in Malaysia. Over the years, these groups have actively partnered with governement agencies and the community in raising awareness and bringing about change.
Woman’s Aid Organisation
Petaling Jaya, Selangor
The Women’s Aid Organisation began as a shelter for battered women at a time when none existed in Malaysia.
Based on the conviction that no one deserves to be battered, WAO set up the country’s first refuge for abused women in 1982 to provide shelter, counselling and support to women and children who were victims of domestic violence.
Understanding that child survivors of domestic violence are often the hidden victims, WAO then opened a child care centre in 1990 to support and protect these children and help them work through their pain with innovative solutions like play therapy.
In 2004, WAO expanded and set up an administrative centre where they also conducted research and did advocacy work.
Much has been achieved since then.
From their experience of running refuge centres, WAO has formulated the Domestic Violence Shelter Standards and Toolkit in collaboration with the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development, which was launched last year.
The toolkit is expected to be adopted by the government as the national standards for shelters soon.
WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan says that the toolkit was largely informed by the experiences of the “brave women and children survivors of domestic violence” who have come through their doors. These survivors, she says, helped them understand the risks and struggles they face even after having left their abusive environment.
“They also help us see the positive impact that supportive and safe shelters can have on their lives. We must keep their support, safety and empowerment at the front and centre of our coordinated response,” says Sumitra.
An important milestone in WAO’s work to eliminate violence against women was, of course, the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act in 1994 (implemented two years later) and the amendment to the act in 2011 to expand the definition of violence to include mental, emotional and psychological abuse. But a law is of little use if women aren’t aware of their rights and how it can protect them.
WAO’s awareness and advocacy programmes have also encouraged more women to speak out against abuse and seek help when they feel threatened or unsafe. Now more than ever before, women are reporting domestic abuse.
To respond to these women, the WAO has built on their hotline service (which includes a SMS service) manned by trained volunteers known as the WAO Crisis Support Officers. These volunteers go through an intensive programme developed by the organisation to teach them how to respond to victims of abuse according to international best practices.
Sisters In Islam
Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Recently, the Court of Appeals gave Sisters In Islam (SIS) the green light to challenge a gazetted fatwa (edict) in Selangor which declared the group as deviants of Islam. With this new ruling, the civil court has the jurisdiction to hear a challenge on a fatwa on constitutional grounds.
For the Muslim women’s rights group, this is an important milestone.
“This is all we wanted … to be heard on the merits of our case in open court and to address the intersection between religion and laws which has caused religion to encroach on the laws that are being made,” says Rozana Isa, executive director of SIS.
SIS was formed in 1993 to fight for Muslim women’s rights within the framework of Islam and operates from the belief that Islam does not condone the oppression of women. Although they well regarded worldwide, SIS has faced opposition domestically from detractors who claim the group is influenced by secularism and the West, and therefore deviates from Islam.
SIS started out by looking into the problems Muslim women were facing in the court system. Their focus soon grew to include issues such as polygamy as well as domestic and sexual violence within marriage.
They were concerned that amendments to the 1984 Islamic Family Law, made from the 1990s onwards, were chipping away at the protection that Muslim women had.
For example, under the Act, divorce and polygamy outside the court were illegal. But subsequent amendments to the Act allowed for divorce and polygamy that were conducted without the court’s permission to be registered as legal.
More than ever, Muslim women needed a body that could look out for them and safeguard their welfare and fight for their rights. This has been the role that SIS has taken, swiftly rising to the call of vulnerable women.
Through their advocacy and outreach, SIS has helped many women access justice for themselves and their families, primarily in family law cases.
For the women of SIS, their most significant achievement recently has been their work with women at the grassroots. Last year, they helped set up a coalition of single mother’s organisations from all over Malaysia, known as Gabungan Hak Wanita Islam (Gahwi).
Another milestone is providing legal support for Muslim women seeking legal recourse in Syariah Courts through their Telenisa service and the Dr Nik Noriani Legal Aid Fund.
“Most times, people are unaware of what to do in court, of the legal process and paperwork required. The entire process of a divorce, for example, can be daunting and stressful for single mothers. In addition, the shortage of gender sensitive syariah lawyers, bureaucracy and red tape add to the distress of single mothers in syariah courts.
“In 2016, Telenisa handled a total of 990 cases and assisted 371 clients on various issues such as divorce procedures, claiming maintenance, child custody and providing general information on syariah law,” says Rozana.
SIS also provides financial assistance to clients in need through their Dr Nik Noriani Legal Aid Fund and defends the right of society to debate and discuss laws and public policy.
“If Islam is being used as a source of law and public policy, then everyone has the right to discuss and debate these laws. This is SIS’ ardent belief,” says Rozana who believes it’s imperative that SIS encourages debates on issues that affect women and society.
Women Centre For Change
Long ago, before sexual predators made the headlines in Malaysia, an NGO was already protecting children — by arming them with knowledge and awareness. Fifteen years ago, the Women Centre for Change (WCC) started their sexual abuse prevention programme, Ok Tak Ok, which teaches children about good and bad touches.
WCC was set up 31 years ago in Penang to end gender violence and promote gender equality, and is today the main NGO supporting vulnerable women in the northern states.
Their guiding belief is “Change is Possible”, and this is reflected in the WCC’s team’s commitment in devising and executing comprehensive strategies to serve and advocate for victims of violence and their families.
They have gone from providing shelter and counselling to abused women and doing community outreach work to lobbying for changes in policy and laws and producing useful resource materials in multiple languages.
WCC’s groundbreaking work is their comprehensive service for domestic violence and sexual assault victims. They support their clients fully — from counselling to making police reports and providing legal and emotional support throughout the criminal justice system. In 2016, WCC supported 63 such cases, out of which half went to court.
The other important component of WCC’s work is training. WCC staff trains teachers on child sexual abuse prevention and medical personnel on dealing with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. They also work closely with relevant government agencies to improve legal and policy reforms which affect women and children.
“We take great pride in supporting the long and difficult journey together with our clients, many of whom are survivors of domestic violence and sexual crimes. The WCC staff have witnessed some of the most intense human drama from the first contact with a survivor to provide emotional support to seeking justice for them.
“The challenges are significant, but it can be very rewarding when our client or their family members tell us that ‘without WCC we don’t know what we would have done,’ or ‘through counselling with WCC I learnt who I am and I love myself now. How can we not be proud about that?” said WCC executive director Loh Cheng Kooi.
In the last 10 years, WCC has expanded its services to Penang’s mainland, with a centre in Seberang Jaya, to serve women and children there and in the northern states.