Introducing Sumitra Visvanathan, the new executive director of WAO

With a new captain at its helm, the Woman’s Aid Organisation hopes to reach out to more women and children.

Sumitra Visvanathan knows full well that she has big shoes to fill. As the newly appointed executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), she takes over from veteran women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah who has been at the forefront of protecting battered women for close to two decades.

But, new as she is to WAO, Sumitra is no novice when it comes to working with the disenfranchised. As a humanitarian aid worker with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she has been helping displaced men, women and children for the past 16 years.

Her work has taken her to some of the most dangerous crisis areas in the world – her last posting was in Baghdad, Iraq.

“I think what kept me going was seeing how people’s quality of life could change with what we were doing. One person can make a difference in another’s life. A group of people can make a bigger difference. And an organisation full of people wanting to make a difference can really make a huge impact. That is something quite special,” says the 46-year-old lawyer.

It is this passion to help others lead better lives that has led her to WAO.

“WAO has a similar approach to the UN – using limited resources wisely to maximise its impact. Of course, I was initially very apprehensive about assuming this role. I’ve been away for so long and this is a new area ... the issues of gender that WAO deals with are very localised and something I wasn’t completely familiar with.

“It has been a huge learning curve but I have a great team here and have received a lot of support from Ivy and the other women’s groups, which has made the transition smooth,” she shares.

Exploring new possibilities

Barely two months into her role, and Sumitra and her team have already charted out WAO’s roadmap for the next two years. Top on the list is their “safe communities” programme that hopes to empower community members – men, women, boys and girls – to stand up against violence within the household.

“WAO is actively engaged in advocacy and I think we’ve all come to recognise that the incidence of domestic violence in Malaysia is very high. However, there is a big gap in services ... there are no state-provided services and really, WAO and other women’s organisations are the few NGOs that provide direct services to women who are survivors of domestic violence.

In this picture taken on January 26, 2015 Nigerian refugees go about their daily lives at a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) camp in Baga Sola. The refugees arrived in the camp after the attack by Boko Haram millitants in the Nigerian town of Baga. AFP PHOTO/ SIA KAMBOU

“Our plan is to extend our reach as much as possible with the resources that we have. We want to actively engage the community – to educate people about domestic violence and help them understand how damaging it is for their communities when there are women within their community who are being abused.

“We want to encourage them not to be bystanders. If you see something happening, it is your responsibility to do something. We will give them the tools and skills on how they can respond when they know of or are faced with such situations,” says Sumitra.

She reiterates that WAO’s aim remains unchanged: to end gender discrimination, eliminate domestic violence and to protect those who are survivors of violence. The new programmes hope to hasten the attainment of these goals.

“Unless women have access to justice, this country cannot achieve the development that we want,” she emphasises.

To extend its reach, Sumitra hopes to offer WAO’s expertise in establishing and running shelters for survivors of violence to state authorities or other NGOs who need assistance.

“We have developed a system that works well and we want to package our methodology and come out with a tool kit on establishing and managing shelters.

A picture taken on January 27, 2015 shows Nigerians from the northeast town of Baga sitting in a United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) camp in NGouboua, in Chads Lake Chad region, during a meeting with the camps personnel. Since the beginning of January more than 14,000 people have fled over the Nigerian border into Chad to escape the bloody attacks by Islamist group Boko Haram around Baga, according to Mamadou Dian Balde, of the UNs refugee agency. AFP PHOTO / SIA KAMBOU

“We want to call upon the government welfare agencies to use our method. We can assist and guide them in using our model and set up domestic violence shelters throughout the country. That would be a good way of reaching out to more women and children,” she says.

Research and documentation is another area that Sumitra and her team will be focusing on.

“We feel there should be more emphasis on research, documentation and analysis on issues related to violence against women. Specifically, we are interested in finding the link between domestic violence and homelessness.

“Many women remain in violent relationships because the alternative for them is to become homeless. This is a very real fear – if they leave, where would they go? Where would they take their children?

“We also want to focus on the link between homicide and domestic violence. We are not sure this data is being accurately captured. We can get a fairly good idea of the number of women who are seriously harmed as a result of domestic violence, but the number of times a woman dies because of it needs to be captured because it will demonstrate to our policy makers how really critical the situation is,” she says.

Groomed to care

As a young child growing up in Port Dickson and Penang, Sumitra and her siblings were encouraged by their headmaster father to keep abreast with current affairs, both national and international.

“My father used to make us read newspapers from the time we started Year 1. We would read both Malay and English papers and also Dewan Masyarakat (a monthly Malay-language magazine) and he would ask us questions about what we’d read. He wanted us to be aware of current events and I think that’s why I became so international-minded,” she says.

Working with refugees as a UNHCR humanitarian aid worker was immensely fulfilling.
Working with refugees as a UNHCR humanitarian aid worker was immensely fulfilling.

Still, at 15, when her father announced to the family that some of their relatives in Sri Lanka had to flee their home and country to escape from an ongoing civil war, Sumitra was badly shaken.

“That had a huge impact on me. I felt a sense of fear and insecurity. How could this happen? What could possibly make a person feel that they can no longer live in their own country?” recalls Sumitra.

Outraged and curious, she began to read voraciously about the issue of refugees.

“I read whatever I could get my hands on about the issue and that led me to UNHCR. I became obsessed with the idea that a UN agency could help individuals,” she says.

Her interest in the refugee situation and the problems of displaced people carried on through university. Sumitra read law at the University of Leicester in Britain and made sure that one of the subjects she took was refugee law.

“Many of us don’t understand that it could happen to anyone. Anyone could find themselves a refugee ... there is no filtering whether you are rich or poor or a man, woman or child. In a crisis or emergency situation, everyone is at risk.

Upon graduating, Sumitra returned to Malaysia and applied for an internship at the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur while waiting to be called to the Bar.

Vee says that the friends she made as a UNHCR humanitarian aid worker will remain some of her closest friends. ‘When you share that kind of experience, you become friends forever,’ she says.
Sumitra says that the friends she made as a UNHCR humanitarian aid worker will remain some of her
closest friends. ‘When you share that kind of experience, you become friends forever,’ she says.

“Instead, they offered me a job and sent me to a refugee camp in Indonesia. I was not yet 24. But because of my knowledge in refugee law which was not common at the time in Malaysia, they felt they could use my skills. I was sent to a refugee camp in the middle of nowhere in Indonesia. That’s how I started,” she recalls.

The steely and determined youngster had no choice but to adapt. Quickly.

“I was absolutely unprepared for the extreme difficulties of life as an aid worker, the extreme distress that many people find themselves in and for the extreme violation of rights that people – refugees and asylum seekers – face in their countries.

“Thankfully, UNHCR has a support programme that helped me through that initial shock. After that, I discovered how impactful my work could be. What we do, had immediate impact on all these people. And that is what is so sustaining,” she shares.

Among her tasks as a humanitarian aid worker was setting up “operations centers” in emergency areas, making sure that the thousands of people seeking asylum have shelter, water, food, and access to services.

After the basic services have been set up came the task of determining if the people seeking asylum could be classified as refugees under international law.

“I would usually have a very short time ... maybe two hours to interview someone to get all the information I can about their situation and determine whether or not they can safely return to their country.

Time to come home

Baghdad was her last posting and though she says she was at the peak of her career, Sumitra felt a desire to return home to solid ground. Coincentally, she also learnt about the vacancy at WAO.

“I was at the top of my game in Baghdad. Everything I have learnt with UNHCR, I could apply in the context of Baghdad and I was very experienced by that time. I mean, it was a very difficult situation there. I was working in a high security situation with a very politically sensitive group of people who were very much at risk. It involved very delicate negotiations with the government, with the resettlement country, within the UN and also with the group of refugees themselves. As a young aid worker, it was easy to get caught up in helping people ... any fear we may have is contained and put aside.

“But as I got older, I suddenly started thinking about my family and how they would react. All that became more important and so I decided to come back after a couple of years there to be with my father and my family,” she says adding that her sister has been her bedrock throughout her career.

So when Ivy asked her to consider working at WAO, it was as if all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together.

“I applied for the post and went through a very rigorous application process as they wanted to make sure I was the right person for the job. Ivy had brought WAO up to a certain level that had to be maintained. I’m very happy that I got it,” she shares.

Already, she finds her work exhilarating.

“I really believe that people in our community – businesses, leaders, educationists, the community – believe in our message.

“It is part of our culture as Malaysians to be non-violent and to protect people in distress and to help uplift others in our community or neighbourhood who are in a difficult situation. So what we need to do is get our message.

“We want to protect women from domestic violence and prevent it from happening in the first place. And we have to reach out into the community to find partners who will be our advocates,” she says.

WAO , social worker Sumithra Vee