Published: Friday December 6, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday December 6, 2013 MYT 8:44:37 AM

Being the change

Consultant oncologist Dr Christina Ng started Empowered to give the poor access to cancer education and treatment.

Consultant oncologist Dr Christina Ng started Empowered to give the poor access to cancer education and treatment.

It’s a better world because of those who are willing to go above and beyond their call of duty to make a difference. Three women were recently honoured by the Women’s Weekly magazine as Great Women of Our Time for their outstanding achievements and their impact on the lives of others.

Dr Christina Ng

Consultant oncologist Dr Christina Ng started health NGO, Empowered, to educate under-resourced communities on cancer, in 2009.

Empowered raises awareness and knowledge on cancer and treatment options, and provides screening and treatment.

“Through my practice at a public hospital early in my career, I witnessed how wrong medical decisions made by patients, particularly those from low-income households, resulted in premature death. Many under-resourced communities don’t have access to information, treatment and emotional support in dealing with cancer and I wanted to provide a structured cancer support programme for these communities,” says Dr Ng, who graduated from the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Empowered, she says, hopes to save lives through early detection of cancer. As colorectal cancer is currently the most common type of cancer affecting men and the second most common cancer affecting women in Malaysia, much of Empowered’s focus is on colorectal cancer.

“Risk awareness and proactive screening in Malaysia remain a challenge. Our solution is to first raise awareness about the disease and also the importance of a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Secondly, we conduct screening workshops and intervention programmes,” she explains.

To make sure they reach the communities they are targeting, Empowered brings their workshops literally to the doorsteps of the people who need their services most.

“We work with community leaders not only to ensure the social and cultural values of each community are incorporated into our programmes, but also to get them to play a key role in the programmes. We literally knock on doors to disseminate information and encourage residents to participate in our screening programmes,” she says.

In under-resourced communities, Dr Ng points out, health is often a lesser priority.

“For these communities, survival is their priority. Many hold several jobs just to make ends meet. They may not be so willing to spend time screening for cancer. But by bringing it to their doorsteps, we are able to make our services more accessible and increase our reach,” she says.

Ng’s persistence has paid off. Empowered sees better response to the screening kits handed out to communities, from a 66% return rate in 2010 to 85% in 2012.

“We collaborate with a team of doctors in government hospitals to ensure medical tests for those who have been diagnosed. All costs are borne by Empowered and we make arrangements to pick the patients up from their homes for their subsequent appointments. We also give them moral and emotional support, which is an important part of cancer treatment,” she says.

So far, Empowered has reached 50,000 urban poor Malaysians in the Klang Valley, beginning with their pilot programme in Sentul in 2010.

Setting up Empowered was definitely a challenge, admits Dr Ng, who had no prior experience setting up an NGO, let alone running one.

“Thankfully I had a lot of help and support from my family, friends and colleagues. It has been a learning experience. It still is, but I think we have developed effective strategies to help us overcome challenges and achieve our goals.

“When I see the expressions on the faces of the people we serve and hear their gratitude, it is easy to forget the challenges we faced in fulfilling our mission. My goal is to run more programmes, especially in rural areas and also to target other prevalent cancers,” she says. A safer Malaysia

Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat

DR Geshina Ayu Mat Saat believes women fare better than men in her field.

“Women have better intuition and are more empathetic which I believe makes us better criminologists,” says the lecturer with Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Forensic Science programme. “We are also better at multitasking and connecting the dots. Criminology is seen as a man’s field, but gender does not really matter. I have not found it harder as a woman.

“If anyone looks down at a female criminologist, it is their problem, not mine. I simply ignore them and let my work speak for itself.”

Dr Geshina’s interest in psychology was inspired by her father, psychologist and family therapist Prof Datuk Dr Mat Saat Baki.

“I think I knew since I was around five. My sisters and I used to follow my dad around when he gave psychology lectures. I actually learned a lot from hands-on experience and experiential learning from him rather than in classes at university,” she says.

Criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu believes her expertise will make Malaysia safer.

Upon completing her degree in psychology, Dr Geshina was offered a choice of postgraduate scholarship for either criminology or forensic psychology by USM. She chose criminology.

“My training is eclectic, really. As I said, I had exposure to psychology since I was young. I know about law, medicine, sociology, human resources, psychometrics, forensics, violence, victimisation, counselling ... because these are what underpin criminology. When dealing with criminals, you need to know the laws and criminal procedure codes, you need to know the psyche of criminals and their social support and networks and you also need to know their modus operandi including the tools and technology that they use. I like learning various things and this field allows me to make use of my knowledge.

“I had my practical training in Britain and my field experience in Malaysia,” says Dr Geshina who was born in Australia and grew up in the United States. She moved back to Malaysia for her tertiary education before going to Britain for her graduate and post-graduate education.

Not long after obtaining her Masters in Applied Criminology, Dr Geshina and her father were called upon to help the Prisons Department create the in-house rehabilitation for sexual offenders.

Criminology, she explains, is the study of crime, criminals and their victims. To a certain extent it also covers punishment for crimes committed.

“The bulk of my work is teaching. I teach criminology, violence and society, among other subjects and I also conduct research which I enjoy very much. I have several ongoing research projects, most of which involve the profiling of various types of criminals and victims. These are joint research work with my postgraduate students.

“I also help the police and prison authorities assess criminals and victims, and profile criminals and their rehabilitation needs, when requested. I sometimes address the rehabilitation needs of victims, too. Criminologists cannot and should not sit in their ivory towers. If we do so, how do we know what are the public’s concerns in making society safer? I am directly involved with government agencies like the police,

“Prisons department, banks, organisations like Unicef, the media, hospitals, and the community in addressing social ills. Sometimes, this involves reviews of Malaysian laws,” explains Dr Geshina, who is based in Kota Baru, Kelantan.

Ultimately, Dr Geshina hopes she can contribute in making Malaysia a safer place for all.

“Criminology has a ripple effect that touches upon other fields of knowledge. I get to see firsthand the changes in our society, thanks to the advances in criminology. “The most fulfilling thing about my job is being able to help the police and Prisons department and make Malaysia safer,” she says.

Sharmila Sekaran

IN 2008, lawyer Sharmila Sekaran set up Voice of the Children with five other friends to advocate for the protection of children.

“Voice of The Children is an advocacy group. We started as a group of friends who came together after realising that there was a gap in the child welfare situation … we have service providers like orphanages and care centres and we have NGOs that did specific work for children… but there wasn’t an NGO that looked after children as a whole,” she explains.

Sharmila and her friends realised that long-term improvements in the welfare of children will not be possible without a change in the policies and laws that affect them. And so they formed Voice of the Children to fulfill that need.

“A lot of what we do is through the courts. We take on cases which we feel are necessary to create the right kind of precedent. We present cases that can provide an Amicus brief or a friend of the court… put forward information that a judge should consider when making a decision about a specific case. We provide data that judges may not otherwise have access to, information they may not be aware of.

“Often when a case is being heard, the information that is being heard is just pertaining to the case. But sometimes, judges need to know some background, about how their decisions can affect society at large or affect other children,” she explains.

Lawyer Sharmila Sekaran champions children in the courts.

One of the main issues Sharmila and her team is addressing is stateless and undocumented children.

“When we started,there was no public discussion about stateless children ... in fact, many people are not even aware of the issue. But there is a large pool of people in Malaysia who are stateless and do not have identification documents. Most people don’t see how this affects them or society or the country, but stateless children are children who are not getting basic education or healthcare.

“They don’t belong to any country. They are stuck here, living here by the grace of other Malaysians and the Government who is not educating them or giving them healthcare. There is a whole group of illiterate people who aren’t able to get jobs because they have no identification papers and education. And we know that education is one of the things that can get you out of poverty. So this pool of people are going to be caught in a cycle … in a trap which will lead them down the path of vice,” she says.

So far, Voice of Children has managed to advocate for and successfully obtain identification papers for a number of stateless children by working with Government agencies like the Home Affairs Ministry, the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Social Welfare Department.

“We have been well received by government departments who recognise there are serious problems and are making serious attempt to address these issues. I think they appreciate what we are doing.

“Because of that, we have been able to get a few children citizenship papers. We are now working with the Government to make the process more easily understood so that you don’t need a lawyer or NGO to know what to do if you come upon someone who is undocumented… anyone can help because the system is so easily understood,” she says.

The NGO also helps children who come into conflict with the law.

“Juvenile justice issues are another area of concern. Statistics show that if we prevent a child from being in conflict with the law, it will cost us seven times less than if we have to rehabilitate a child. One of the key strategies is making sure that the child’s first contact with the law or police is right. This can make a difference as to whether the child reoffends or not. We must consider whether we really have to send the children down the path of a court hearing or if there is a diversion?

“Of course there are offences which require them to come to court … in these instances, what kind of experience will they have in court? If it’s too terrifying, they will go into themselves and end up with so many other issues. And, when they finally get placed in a home or a juvenile detention centre, they find solidarity with others like them and then a gang is formed.

“At the same time, we don’t want them to think that coming to court is such a pleasant experience that they would re-offend. We have to strike a balance,” she says.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, women, Women’s Weekly, Great Women of Our Time, Lawyer Sharmila Sekaran, Consultant oncologist Dr Christina Ng, Criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu


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