Fifty years of women's activism

Leading the way: Activists (from left) Datuk Ramani Gurusamy, Datuk Rasammah Bhupalan and Ho Yock Lin shared their experiences of advocating for women.

The National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) has led the way in raising women’s status in Malaysia.

SHE has achieved many milestones for women’s rights in the past 60 years, but Datuk Rasammah Bhupalan is all too well aware of the work that is still not done, especially among underprivileged groups.

“We have come a long way. But how do we gauge the empowerment of women when we have only touched upper and middle-income women. What about the lower-income group? What have we brought to them?” said Rasammah, 86, who co-founded the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) 50 years ago.

NCWO is the umbrella organisation, with 125 affiliates, working to raise women’s status in Malaysia. There is just no resting on the laurels for Rasammah, or for the other two women activists at NCWO’s Breakfast with Mentors session recently, held in conjuction with the organisation’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.

Rasammah, NCWO vice president Datuk Ramani Gurusamy, 72, and All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) president Ho Yock Lin, 58, are all veterans in Malaysia’s feminist movement, and they have worked hard to raise the standard of Malaysian women’s lives – from advocating for equal pay to amending legislation on rape, violence against women and custody rights, to creating awareness of breast cancer.

“In the 1960s, the fights were for bread and butter issues, like equal pay. Then, women became temporary teachers when they got married. They were also not eligible for pension,” recalled Ramani.

Fighting for equal pay for women teachers was “the first real struggle for women in Malaya”, said Rasammah who founded and headed the first Women Teachers Union in 1960. It was only in 1972 that women teachers finally received the same pay as their male peers.

Over the decades, women activists have lobbied to put women’s rights at the forefront of government policies, beginning with the establishment of the Women’s Advisory Council in 1976 to maximise women’s participation in Malaysia’s development.

In 1983, the Secretariat for Women’s Affairs, Hawa, was set up under the Prime Minister’s Department ensure women have equal opportunities, and a National Policy on Women was adopted in 1989. They paved the way for the setting up of the Women’s Ministry in 2001; it was the culmination of many decades of advocating for women’s issues to be integrated into all public policies. These milestones in the women’s movement were documented in NCWO 50 Years Remembered, a book to commemorate NCWO’s 50th Anniversary (pic).

The book commemorating the women's movement in Malaysia.

One of the most important tasks undertaken by activists was in changing legislations that were discriminatory towards women. In 1985, NCWO brought together women’s organisations and identified laws that discriminated against women.

“Amending legislation is a long-drawn process. We worked on reforming laws on rape and domestic violence, custody and guardianship of children, inheritence and property rights. We also lobbied for maternity leave to be extended from 42 days to 60 days, and to 90 days in 2010,” recalled Ramani.

She recounted how women activists networked with their Canadian counterparts to change how rape cases were handled in the 1980s. “We helped set up the first One-Stop Rape Crisis Centre in Hospital Kuala Lumpur in1994, and put together a rape investigation kit. I remember we went to see the Inspector General of Police Tun Hanif Omar to lobby for the setting up of a special unit of women police officers to investigate rape cases, and it was set up in 1986,” said Ramani, who also cited amendments to the Domestic Violence Act which came into effect in 1996 as another important achievement.

Although much has been done in the past 50 years, the three women activists emphasised that so much more needs to be done. Rasammah pointed out there is still not enough women representation in Parliament, or debates focused on women.

“We must not be afraid to fight for change. I grew up questioning institutions and justices, and learnt about women’s rights in the UK where I was studying. I remembered reading about the women’s teachers union activism at that time (1960s),” recalled Ho, who cited how they fought for the age limit for statutuory rape to be raised from below 14 to 16.

At 58, Ho joked that she was the “youngest” at the panel, but the three women activists certainly presented an energetic session to their young audience. Rasammah is feisty and unwavering in her commitment to the women’s cause, and Ramani spoke of how she continues to be motivated to work for marginalised women.

Most importantly, they said there is no standing on the sidelines. “We need young, fresh blood in the women’s movement. We need your excitement, your passion and your commitment. So, prepare yourself to get into the movement. Get the leadership skills you need, and you probably already have them. Get into an organisation. Now, with the Internet, you can see what an organisation is all about. See what are the issues that interest you and get involved. We need you,” said Ramani.

Rasammah said it’s essential to be active in an organisation, even if it’s only for two hours a week, or even a fortnight. They also need men to be involved in the women’s cause, said Ho who cited the success of NCWO’s MenCare campaign which engaged men to encourage women to screen for breast cancer.

For more information on NCWO and for enquiries on its 50th Anniversary book, visit

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