Illustrated by @chokoilatte
By Jane Law
Malaysia has definitely come a long way when it comes to fighting for women’s rights. However, the day isn’t exactly all bright and sunny, especially when we come across indecorous reports time after time such as politicians commenting on female sports’ attires being ‘too revealing’, proposing protection laws for men that were ‘seduced’ into raping and well, you know all the jazz.
This International Women’s Day, women’s rights and gender equality are taking center stage with this year’s theme, “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights”. The theme is aligned with UN Women’s new multigenerational campaign, ‘Generation Equality’, which is a campaign that brings together people of every gender, age, ethnicity, race, religion and country to drive actions that will create the gender-equal world we all deserve.
In celebration of women this March, ETC. Magazine had the lovely pleasure to conduct an insightful interview with one of Malaysia’s civil society that has toiled endlessly to champion the rights of women in Malaysia. We are thankful for having this privilege to talk to Women’s Aid Organization’s advocacy and communications officer, Tan Heang-Lee and to hear her spirited thoughts on the topic.
1. To those who are not familiar with the organization, could you give us a brief introduction on what Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) is?
Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) is Malaysia’s leading women’s rights advocacy organization and service provider for women and children who face abuse. Founded in 1982 by a group of visionary women, WAO provides free crisis support and shelter to survivors of abuse, reaching over 3,000 women and children each year. WAO has been the first to establish a domestic shelter in Malaysia.
2. What does Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) hope to achieve with its establishment?
Over the past 38 years, WAO has been at the forefront of efforts to advance women’s rights in Malaysia. As we look to the future, we continue to evolve and innovate, while staying true to our mission: ending violence against women and realizing gender equality. Learning from women and children’s experiences, WAO hopes to improve public policies and shift societal attitudes on violence against women and gender equality.
3. According to your social media posts, Women’s Aid Organization (WAO) has been very vocal in fighting for women’s rights and gender equality such as paternity leaves, stopping female genital mutilation, education for girls, and so much more. Why do you think it is important to voice out in issues like these?
Many of the rights that women have today — the right to vote, the right to education, the right to work, etc. — were the result of years, if not decades, of women’s rights activism — locally and globally. They are hard-won rights. Reforms such as protection against discrimination in the workplace, the Gender Equality Act and many others have the potential to improve the lives of millions of women in Malaysia. We still have a long way to go in ensuring that all women can fully exercise and enjoy their rights. So, we need to keep pushing for progress.
4. The 8th of March is being hailed as International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is ‘I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights’. Do you think most women, especially in Malaysia, are still unlettered with their rights? If so, what do you think contributes to this?
I do think that many women in Malaysia are speaking up and refusing to be silenced. For example, we saw hundreds of women in Malaysia taking to the streets on 8 March 2020, calling for reforms related to women’s rights. Many have also spoken up against sexual harassment and demanded for the Sexual Harassment Act. Over the past 10 years, we have also seen an overall increase in the number of domestic violence cases reported to the police, which suggests that more and more women are breaking the silence.
5. What are some of the rights you think should be allowed or legalized here in Malaysia for women’s safety and protection?
Firstly, we need a Sexual Harassment Act. About 28% of Malaysians surveyed have experienced sexual harassment, according to a 2019 YouGov survey. Many victims, however, cannot get redress, as existing laws are simply inadequate. Therefore, proposing the Sexual Harassment Act would introduce a specialized Sexual Harassment Tribunal, which would allow victims to seek redress without going through a lengthy, costly process.
Secondly, we need anti-stalking laws. Stalking is currently not a crime in Malaysia, which means that if someone were to repeatedly follow you, contact you, or show up at places that you typically go—classic forms of stalking—there is little that the authorities can do. As a result, victims of stalking live in fear. Stalking can also escalate to crimes that are violent—including murder. In Canada and the United States, 90% of women who were murdered had been stalked. This is why we must nip stalking in the bud by enacting anti-stalking laws. This would protect victims—and potentially save thousands of lives.
Thirdly, we need protection against discrimination in the workplace. Currently, private sector employees are not protected from gender discrimination. This is a critical gap given that gender discrimination is rampant in the workplace. A WAO survey, for example, shows that over 40% of pregnant women surveyed had faced discrimination in the workplace—they were made redundant, denied promotions, placed on prolonged probations, demoted, and terminated. There have even been cases where hotels had banned frontline staff from wearing the hijab.
Fourthly, we need at least 7 days of paternity leave in the private sector. Studies show that children with involved fathers have better social, emotional and cognitive development. Yet, fathers in the private sector are not legally entitled to any paternity leave—unlike fathers in the public sector, who currently receive seven days of paid paternity leave. The introduction of paternity leave will send the message that parenting is a shared responsibility and such changes in social norms would help women to stay in the workforce. The Khazanah Research Institute estimates that over 2,563,800 women in Malaysia are not working due to “housework or family responsibilities”, compared to just 69,800 men.
6. As a woman, how can I educate myself so that I fully know and realize my own rights?
Last year, WAO published an extensive report on the status of women’s human rights in Malaysia. You can check it out here. Additionally, to learn more about the rights of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, check out our website, wao.org.my.
7. If anyone out there is interested in being a part of Women’s Aid Organization (WAO), how do they get involved and what are some of the activities they can do to contribute?
You could volunteer with us by filling out our volunteer form: https://wao.org.my/volunteer/. Some of the activities that our volunteers are involved in include public education events, advocacy campaigns, programs for women and children. Together, we can work to create a world where all genders are treated as equals.