Social workers are our unsung heroes and must be recognised


Social workers hold the edges of society together and try to make life better for the whole community. Photo: MASW & Unicef

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW) have launched the Heroes Among Us campaign to raise awareness on the challenges faced by social workers in Malaysia, and the necessity of tabling the Social Work Profession Bill promptly.

“Social workers hold the edges of society together. They protect and prevent children and their families from experiencing violence, promote social justice, reduce the effects of discrimination, address inequality, and contribute to the eradication of poverty.

“Social workers help ensure that no one is left behind,” says Unicef representative in Malaysia Robert Gass.

The Social Welfare Department recorded 18,750 cases of child abuse between 2020 and 2022.

Unicef chief of child protection Saskia Blume. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinUnicef chief of child protection Saskia Blume. Photo: The Star/Kamarul AriffinAnd according to the Institute for Public Health, National Health, Morbidity Survey 2022 - Adolescent Survey Malaysia, one in seven school-going adolescents in Malaysia were physically attacked, adds Unicef Chief of Child Protection Services Saskia Blume.

But there is only one social worker to 8,576 people in Malaysia (Mampu 2019).

That’s an alarming figure because it shows there are just not enough social workers to address violence against children, says Blume.

According to the Malaysian Association of Social Workers (MASW) president Dr Teoh Ai Hua, social workers are the “heart of our community”.

“Social work is not just about solving problems. It’s about empowering individuals, creating a ripple effect that strengthens families, communities, and hence, generations.

“We need to appreciate, support and recognise their value,” he says.

“Guided by professional values and ethics, they utilise their knowledge on human behaviour, social systems, law and policies to assist clients navigate complex structures such as the court system, as well as provide psycho-social care and support.

“The decisions they make may impact a client’s life forever. That is why they need to be trained and supported, so that they can confidently and effectively help their clients,” says Teoh.

“Social workers care for others, and they in turn need to be taken care of.

“They must receive adequate resources, training and support, as well as proper recognition and investment,” he adds.

Teoh highlights that social workers face many challenges because social work is not regulated as a profession in Malaysia.

By comparison, social work is regulated in the Philippines (1965), Singapore (2009), Thailand (2013), and Indonesia (2019).

And, while there is an estimated one social worker for every 8,576 people in Malaysia, the social workers to population ratio in other countries are 1:490 in the United States of America, 1:1,040 in Australia, 1:3,025 in the United Kingdom and 1:3,448 in Singapore.

The decisions social workers make may impact a client’s life forever. That's why they need to be trained and supported, so that they can confidently and effectively help their clients, says MASW president Dr Teoh Ai Hua. Photo: MASWThe decisions social workers make may impact a client’s life forever. That's why they need to be trained and supported, so that they can confidently and effectively help their clients, says MASW president Dr Teoh Ai Hua. Photo: MASW

Teoh highlights that there is limited public understanding of the role of a social worker.

“It is often thought that social workers carry out charity or voluntary work. As a result, their work is not valued, nor given due recognition or investment,” he says.

While the drafting of the Social Work Profession Bill began in 2010, it has yet to be tabled in Parliament.

Social work aims to improve the lives of individuals, families, groups, communities, and society as a whole.

MASW and Unicef's Heroes Among Us campaign posters. Photo: MASW & UnicefMASW and Unicef's Heroes Among Us campaign posters. Photo: MASW & UnicefIn practice, social work is divided into three levels. Firstly, social workers work directly with individuals and families, such as providing counseling/therapy or assisting a family in accessing services.

Secondly, they work with groups and communities, such as conducting group therapy or providing services for community agencies and thirdly, they foster change through advocacy, social policy, research development, non-profit and public service administration, or working with government agencies.

The campaign seeks to raise awareness of the critical role that social workers play in the lives of children, families and communities in Malaysia.

Social workers help ensure that no one is left behind, says Unicef representative in Malaysia Robert Gass. Photo: UnicefSocial workers help ensure that no one is left behind, says Unicef representative in Malaysia Robert Gass. Photo: Unicef“Heroes Among Us is a call to action to demonstrate our support of social workers as well as to value and invest in their work.

“We can support them through joining together to push for the tabling of the Social Work Profession Bill,” says Gass.

In Malaysia, trained and qualified social workers are employed by diverse government agencies such as the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, and its Department of Social Welfare at national, state and district levels, Health Ministry, and the National Anti-Drugs Agency. They also work in civil society organisations (CSOs) such as in shelters for survivors of intimate partner violence.

“By establishing social work as a profession, we expect more people will be interested in the profession, thus addressing the current shortage of social workers, and raising standards among the social work labour force in Malaysia.

“This will improve availability of social workers to people who need them the most.

“When individuals are cared for and supported, their communities flourish, and as a result, the country prospers,” concludes Teoh.

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