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Eliminating Gender-Based Violence and Improving Gender Equality in times of COVID-19 with Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

Yayasan Sime Darby’s (YSD’s) goal of protecting the basic rights and improving the quality of life of the disadvantaged including vulnerable women and children is underpinned by our long-term partnership with the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

For over a decade, YSD has been working with WAO for the protection of and advocacy efforts for women survivors of domestic violence and their children. YSD’s RM6.3 million support thus far has enabled WAO to reform various national policies and develop guidelines on setting up and operating domestic violence shelters.

YSD had an eye-opening conversation with Yu Ren Chung – the Deputy Executive Director & Advocacy Director at WAO, where he shared about the meaningful partnership with YSD, the sea of challenges brought about by the pandemic, and how the organisation has been sailing through these tough times.

WAO shelter officer with women in the shelter (photo credit Gary Ng).

1. Can you please share about your career journey with WAO and why you do what you do?

As a student, I was inspired by people like Zainah Anwar (Sisters in Islam’s Co-Founder) and the late Irene Fernandez (Tenaganita’s Founder) and wanted to work in human rights. And so, in 2012, I started working with WAO as a programme officer, and later advocacy manager – and am now the Deputy Executive Director and Advocacy Director. I work on public policy reforms to improve gender equality and end gender-based violence in the country - from reforming national laws to supporting battered women and their children. I also oversee some operational functions in the organisation.

2. How have YSD’s contributions helped WAO achieve some of its milestones?

Over the past ten years, YSD has been WAO’s strongest supporter and partner. I especially want to highlight YSD’s understanding and willingness to be a long-term partner and to be agile. Improving public policies usually takes a few years, and the path to achieving the outcome is not straightforward.

Certain activities and timelines can be planned, but many may later become redundant or unachievable while some may become achievable. This requires us to be agile and analytical in our charting of goals and activities, while of course having the big picture – achieving gender equality and ending gender-based violence, in mind. Having a partner like YSD that ensures accountability while understanding the issues and practicalities – is important for this kind of work.

3. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected WAO’s efforts in accelerating the implementation of national policy revisions to protect women’s rights and promote gender equality?

First, it worsened existing inequalities and discrimination. Before the pandemic, female workers were already at a disadvantage in terms of labour force participation and shouldering more household and care duties. We saw a higher percentage of women drop out of the labour force as well as become unemployed. As schools and care centres closed, women were disproportionately forced out of their jobs to care for family members.

The pandemic also diverted our focus and resources towards pandemic control and direct aid which pushed back many ongoing reform efforts. While this is to a certain extent expected and understandable, issues like domestic violence should be seen as part of the pandemic response and resources for it should thus be increased.

At the start of the first MCO, there was a lot of chaos and uncertainty with the management of domestic violence instances but eventually we saw a specific allocation of RM21 million towards shelters in the government’s 2021 budget, for example, which is something WAO, with YSD’s support, has been working on.

4. What are the mitigating actions put in place by WAO to help victims and survivors and how effective have they been?

We saw a fourfold increase in calls and messages to our Hotline and messaging service in the first months of the MCO. To manage this increased demand, we hired fresh staff, brought on temporary volunteer officers, and diverted internal officers. Our calls and messages are still roughly double the levels before the pandemic.

Second, we needed to change how we deliver services. We needed to ensure that our officers, volunteers, and survivors were safe, and that we complied with government regulations. We converted our Hotline operations from a physical call centre to completely remote operations – where our officers were able to attend to calls from home. We opened a quarantine facility for our shelter and instituted a work-from-home policy.

5. Can you please share an eye-opening or moving story of a victim/survivor during the pandemic?

It was 3 am when Natasha escaped from her home. A few hours earlier, Natasha had called the WAO Hotline requesting shelter, where a social worker immediately guided her to develop a safety plan. WAO arranged for a private taxi driver to bring her to our Emergency Transit Shelter. In her escape, Natasha had jumped off from her balcony located on the first floor of her residential building resulting in her fracturing her toes. Upon her arrival, Natasha was in immense pain and had to undergo surgery.

Natasha’s parents forced her to marry, and she was not given an opportunity to further her education or work. Unfortunately, within the first few weeks of marriage, her husband abused her. When she reached out to her family for support, she was forced to return to her husband. She was also hesitant to pursue criminal action against her husband as he was an enforcement officer, and she was afraid of the repercussions.

She had to come back to the shelter following threats against her by family members upon returning home. Things were different this time as Natasha was determined to find a job for herself and be independent. She began therapy and enrolled into programmes. With the support of our Programmes team, she managed to find a job and create an independent life.

She has also grown to be more resilient and has said that she will no longer run and hide and will face her challenges fearlessly. With therapy, Natasha says she has also found herself again and now possesses a bright and bubbly personality and aspires to pursue a diploma in a few years.

6. As an organisation, how has WAO been navigating the challenges brought about by the pandemic? Have there been any changes in strategies and plans?

We made three big changes. Firstly, we had to find safe ways to operate, deliver services and conduct outreach. Secondly, we expanded our capacity to deal with the increased urgency of and demand for domestic violence services. Third was a shift in advocacy focus on domestic violence response. COVID-19 upended existing response mechanisms. How do you get a protection order during MCO? Can a survivor leave the house to escape abuse? Is it safe to go to hospitals to get medical treatment for injuries resulting from abuse? Do economic relief measures reach survivors?

During the first few months of the first MCO, WAO’s advocacy and research focused exclusively on COVID-19 and MCO effects on domestic violence. Within a month, essential processes were clarified by authorities and the Government issued several public service announcements on domestic violence.

COVID-19 also exposed the weaknesses of our response system, which include funding and plans for domestic violence emergency response. These framework gaps meant that we were ill-prepared for the pandemic. We are thus working with the government to develop a plan of action and ensure more funding is allocated for domestic violence response.

7. Apart from the COVID-19 challenges, what are some of the toughest barriers you face doing the work that you do, and what makes it all worth it?

The toughest aspect of WAO’s work I feel is casework – where WAO social workers provide direct support to survivors. This could be supporting a woman in crisis get immediate shelter, lodge a police report, apply for financial aid, get medical assistance, and access other services and rights. It is challenging because in these crisis situations, immediate action is needed, and those response have a lasting impact on individuals’ lives. At the same time, that makes it all rewarding.

I focus more on policy work, and one challenge from this is that though we can produce reports, talk to people, organise meetings, and plan campaigns, decisions on policies are beyond our control as well. For example, the government’s political commitment, individual policymakers, and external events like COVID-19.

We must be agile and strategic in building networks, so we have the best chance at success. And we have achieved several successes with our partners in recent years, like amending the Domestic Violence Act, introducing shared government SOPs to respond to domestic violence, creating a National Committee on Domestic Violence, and securing specific public funding for domestic violence centres, among others.

8. What can the public do to be more involved in promoting and upholding gender equality and battling gender-based violence?

One thing anyone can do is be an “upstander.” Do not ignore abuse, harassment, and discrimination – at work, in public, at home, in WhatsApp groups, or in any setting. If someone makes a sexist joke, you can say it is not appropriate. You can introduce a sexual harassment policy at work. If you witness abuse, you can call the authorities at 15999, or WAO at 03 3000 8858 or message 018 988 8058.

9. What are your hopes and dreams for WAO as well as gender equality and women empowerment in Malaysia?

Ultimately, we aspire to live in a country free from gender-based violence, and that is gender-equal. It is a long road ahead, and we need to work with partners like YSD and all stakeholders to get there.

WAO and government agencies at the Jawatankuasa Menangani Keganasan Rumah Tangga Meeting, June 2020.

WAO crisis support officer attending to a Hotline call (photo credit Gary Ng).

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Last Updated:
30 Sep 2021
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