Malaysian women's NGO celebrates 40 years of serving at the grassroots


WAO executive director Sumitra (right) with the team at WAO.

Forty years on, Women’s Aid Organisation’s vision has remained the same: Making Malaysia a better country for women. The vision of the women’s rights group is grounded on the belief that when the safety and well-being of women are protected, the country will be in a much better state for everyone.

“When things are good for women, it augurs well for the society as a whole,” says WAO executive director Sumitra Visvanathan.

Sumitra says that WAO’s vision is and always has been to make Malaysia a safer, better place for women.Sumitra says that WAO’s vision is and always has been to make Malaysia a safer, better place for women.“We want to see several things happen for our nation. Firstly, every woman or girl who faces violence and discrimination must be able to access the services, laws and justice she needs to overcome it.

“Secondly, there must be gender equal workplaces where women are able to be who they want to be from a social, cultural and economic perspective, and this refers not just to the formal workplace but also to the home where women do a lot of unpaid work such as caring for children, cooking, and cleaning.

“Thirdly, there must be cultural change, and a shift in public mindset to accept gender equality and to work together to make equality and non-discrimination a reality,” she says.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the organisation.

Core of the organisation

Volunteers are an important part of WAO.Volunteers are an important part of WAO.

At its core, WAO is an organisation that helps women who are going through domestic abuse, as well as their children.

“WAO has a shelter for women (and their dependents) who have experienced some form of gender-based violence. The majority of our cases are domestic violence but it’s not limited to this.

“We also have our childcare centre (CCC), to meet the needs of the women who are looking to rebuild their lives.

“We saw the difficulties women who were recovering from the trauma of abuse face – they had to find a home, keep a job and be a single-parent to their kids,” says WAO services director Charlene Murray.

The CCC is specifically for the daycare and development of the children of domestic violence survivors who can’t afford nursery/after school care or education for their children. It provides academic and recreational programmes and also focuses on rebuilding the children’s mental health so they can be more resilient and deal with childhood trauma,” says Murray.

Rising to the occasion

Murray says that the pandemic was a challenging time for the organisation but also pushed them to innovate.Murray says that the pandemic was a challenging time for the organisation but also pushed them to innovate.One of the major milestones for WAO was weathering the pandemic. The organisation had to operate on limited resources while expanding its services, such as making its hotline 24 hours.

“We recognised the ‘silent pandemic’ that was about to happen. Apart from the public health issue of Covid-19, an emerging issue then was that women faced even higher and worse incidences of domestic violence and other forms of abuse. We realised that women and children would be trapped in abusive situations during the lockdowns,” says Murray.

They had to handle the hotline and also the Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre (CPRC) which was created by the Ministry of Health and Mercy Malaysia.

The general hotline for Covid-19 related matters was inundated with domestic violence calls for help, and any calls dealing with domestic violence or mental health issues were channelled to WAO’s hotline.

WAO’s team also put themselves out there as frontliners. When survivors or communities that they knew of couldn’t get food, they rallied around to bring food aid – even though this was out of their focus area.

It was also during this time that WAO innovated to cater to what was happening on the ground.

“Our services have always been private, face-to-face interactions, but during the pandemic, we had to innovate and evolve by providing ICT training to those in need to help them bring their businesses online, and even teach them about economic empowerment using technology,” says Murray.

“It wasn’t just to a particular group. Our programmes expanded to provide mental health support groups for teenagers, marginalised populations who couldn’t go to school, people who couldn’t leave their homes, all who were susceptible to the pandemic,” she says.

“The perks of evolving online is we’ve extended our reach. We’re able to assist and guide a domestic violence survivor – even though they may be physically far away – on what they can do, what their rights are, etc without physically being there,” Murray adds.

WAO is also part of the Committee to Address Domestic Violence, a coalition of NGOs and government stakeholders that’s managed by the Women’s Ministry.

Engaging men

Among the awareness-raising programmes WAO has run over the years was the Invisible Women art exhibition that highlighted women's stories of gender discrimination. Photo: FilepicAmong the awareness-raising programmes WAO has run over the years was the Invisible Women art exhibition that highlighted women's stories of gender discrimination. Photo: FilepicOne of the challenges WAO faces constantly is the misconception that domestic and sexual violence is “just a women’s issue” or “a private family matter”.

“Asian culture in general always sees domestic violence as a private matter that shouldn’t be aired in public, and here is where public awareness through mainstream media and social media comes in to dispel this perception,” says Murray.

Engaging men to be allies has also been an effort, not just locally but globally, she points out.

“The UN Women’s rationale is that engaging boys and men is a huge component of addressing gender based violence. And WAO focuses on this as well,” she says.

“We try to help the children who come to our shelter with their mothers – especially boys from abusive homes – process and analyse the situation, to make sure they don’t repeat the violence that they grew up around and don’t become perpetrators to their future spouses,” she cites as an example.

“If the boy perceives that his mother got beaten up because she was nagging, then we’ve to correct that wrong perception, so that the vicious cycle doesn’t repeat itself,” she explains.

“We run activities for children’s mental health so that they’ll be able to engage in healthy relationships when they grow up, and we hope that in the future, there’ll be more men championing this,” says Murray.

Holistic perspective

Vaneezha says that innovating has enabled them to reach more survivors and expand their services to cover the whole of Malaysia.Vaneezha says that innovating has enabled them to reach more survivors and expand their services to cover the whole of Malaysia.WAO case manager Vaneezha Muniandi says that WAO works with a holistic perspective.

“Besides engaging with government and non-government agencies, we also engage with volunteers, and especially during the pandemic when we ran a 24-hour hotline,” she says.

Vaneezha who was one of the volunteers during that time, says that they were given phones to ensure they could attend to distress calls and work in chosen time slots.

“Before the pandemic, there were limitations where we could only do case management face-to-face but during the pandemic, we had to evolve and learn to do things online as well,” says Vaneezha who started off as a volunteer with WAO in 2015, and subsequently became a social worker and then a case manager.

“Because of this, we’ve been able to reach more survivors and our team and services have expanded to cover the whole of Malaysia, both through the hotline and also face-to-face.”

Community response is the way forward in eliminating violence against women and children, says WAO director of partnerships and development Amnani Abdul Kadir.

“Our safe community initiative is where we go to the grassroots and talk to people about how to be active bystanders and how to identify signs of domestic violence. Addressing violence is not just legislation but rather what we as individuals can do,” she says.

“If companies implement gender responsive budgeting, there’ll be funds for women’s programmes in corporations. All staff would be educated on gender equality and safe spaces, and they’ll take it home with them to create a safe community at home,” she concludes.


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