Women’s Aid Organisation was founded to plug a gap in the services available for battered women and their children in Malaysia.
“WAO started in the early 1980s with a pro-tem committee that used to meet in Port Dickson. At that time, there were no services for battered women and their children, and no laws that criminalised domestic violence in Malaysia. The idea was to establish an organisation that was able to plug that gap,” says WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan.
The goal was firstly, to provide comprehensive services – including a shelter and social work – for all women facing domestic violence, and their children, and secondly, to collect enough evidence and lived realities so that they could demonstrate to the government why Malaysia needed a law on domestic violence, shares Sumitra who has been with WAO for eight years.
“In 1983, with an initial funding of RM30,000 from Tun Tan Siew Sin (who donated funds he received from the Tun Razak Award for public service) together with donations from corporations, organisations and individuals, totalling RM360,000, and support from Puan Sri Chong Eu Ngoh (the Welfare Department’s former deputy director-general) who led the pro-tem committee, WAO bought its first refuge centre,” she says.
“This was publicised in the local newspapers and there was a woman with a few children who read the story and came to WAO with the newspaper clipping and said: ‘I read about this organisation. Can you shelter me and my kids because I’m facing domestic violence?’ That was WAO’s first case in 1984,” she adds.
WAO’s 40th year celebration will comprise a series of online talks and physical events to showcase the work the women’s NGO has done. There will be a coffee table book - 40 Inspiring Women – on individuals who have made a difference in society. These include unsung heroes such as residents and former residents, volunteers as well as those in society such as business owners who have broken the glass ceiling and contributed to the country, says WAO services director Charlene Murray.
“We’ve always been passionate about celebrating women,” says Murray. “For example, a woman who sells nasi lemak at the back of her truck for 30 years to put her children through college despite being a survivor of domestic violence, and single mothers who hold three jobs to support their family – they need to be highlighted and celebrated.”
What fuels their work
WAO president Sharmila Ravindran says the work that WAO has done is made possible through the support of its stakeholders and partners, the people who have come forward with donations or volunteered.
WAO requires RM5.3mil per year to operate five centres (two shelters, one services centre which acts as a hotline call centre and social work station, the headquarters and a grassroots training space). To help just one survivor per month – including providing food, shelter, counselling, medical and legal aid, social work intervention, case management, etc – costs about RM13,830.
“We want to make WAO’s work more sustainable and relevant to corporations, and we’re happy to work with any organisation that wishes to collaborate with, sponsor or support WAO,” says Sharmila.
There are two programmes in line with SDG 5 (gender equality) to help the private sector develop safer work spaces and better opportunities for women workers, says WAO director of partnerships and development Amnani Abdul Kadir.
We Pledge invites corporates to be part of the movement to create safe spaces for women at work, at home and everywhere else.
“Corporations can pledge to raise awareness on gender-based violence within their workplace with WAO-led informal talks, as well as formal coaching sessions by WAO to develop employee programmes internally. This covers topics like sexual harassment, bullying, DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), workplace discrimination, male allyship, and creating a work space that’s empowering for women,” says Amnani.
The other programme, Level Up, is a gender mainstreaming programme to help organisations improve their internal processes and create structural and cultural change towards gender equality, she says.
She adds that the media also plays a very important role in WAO’s history.
“If the media hadn’t publicised about our shelter when we first started, we wouldn’t have had the chance to save that woman and her children,” she highlights.
“Media is so powerful in impacting cultural change and mindset. In addition, there is film/drama, television and radio, social media and advertising which have the power to empower or disempower women via the trends they set.”
All about teamwork
In 2022, WAO’s hotline received a total of 2,503 calls, out of which 952 where domestic violence cases, while TINA (Think I Need Aid, an SMS/WhatsApp Hotline) received a total of 3,581 enquiries, out of which 1,229 were domestic violence cases.
WAO’s shelters housed 48 women (42 were domestic violence cases), and 43 children in 2022.
This year, from January to April, WAO’s hotline received a total of 779 cases, 248 of which were domestic violence, while TINA received a total of 951 enquiries, 310 of which were domestic violence.
The shelters housed a total of 17 women and 22 children during the same period, 14 women and 21 children related to domestic violence. Besides domestic violence, other calls/enquiries were for rape, sexual harassment, bullying by ex-partners such as wanting to post nude pictures of them, and child abuse.
Currently, there are a total of 18 Crisis Support Officers (CSO) who are trained volunteers and 12 Ambassadors who are trained WAO representatives for talks and public education.
With the increasing number of calls and enquiries, the organisation had to change the way their hotline was managed so people didn’t have to wait long to be attended to, says Murray.
“We started by having a larger pool of CSOs in training. They are volunteers who have gone through extensive training to handle first line calls,” she says, adding that they were trained on topics such as family law, psychological first aid, walking them through what to expect, dealing with caregiver burden, and also equipping them with the necessary information such as certain laws.
“From 20 to 30, to now 100 people, we encourage individuals who may not have the time to physically volunteer, to spend a few hours managing the hotline so we can reach more survivors, says Murray.
Though they focus on helping women and children, WAO also helps survivors who are men, adds Amnani.
“We provide them with crisis support and information. However, because of our mandate, our shelters currently house only women and children in crisis,” she concludes.
To access their services, contact: WAO Hotline (T: 03 3000 8858, 9am - 5pm) or TINA (WhatsApp or SMS 018 988 8058, 24 hours).
More info: wao.org.my/