Bringing Violence to the Forefront

Manohara Subramaniam

When Manohara and her fellow activists came together to form the Women’s Equality Association (WEA) in 2012, they thought, “Maybe we should form a women’s shelter where we will do real work.” In the beginning, the foremost question that they had in mind was, “What are we going to do that is different from others?”

With the mantra, “every woman has a right to live a life free from violence,” as her guide, Mano, as she is fondly called by friends and colleagues, is dedicated to supporting women who experience violence – a vision she shares with JASS. Mano has been with JASS since 2007, and is a regional coordinating group (RCG) representative of JASS Southeast Asia, organizing and mobilizing women in Malaysia on events to end violence such as the One Day, One Voice campaign. Given Malaysia’s high levels of violence against women, it becomes clear why this mantra is a driving force in Mano’s work.

Forty percent of Malaysian women experience various forms of violence – ranging from domestic violence to sexual assault, yet only 10% of these cases are reported. Since 2010, there have been 9,314 domestic abuse and sexual assault cases recorded by the police – an average of nine cases reported daily – still a small number in comparison to those who experience abuse. These statistics, while disturbing, are not surprising because women often experience shame, stigma and victim blaming which inhibits their ability to readily report abuse.

Hope for Women

Seeing and living the reality onSEA team hold hands the ground, Mano, along with a few women activists, set up the Women’s Equality Association (WEA) – a shelter home to provide safety, food and clothing to abused women and their children. It is open to all women who experience abuse, including undocumented immigrant women who are often afraid to seek help.

WEA employs a holistic approach that includes individual counselling and support groups while giving women the “essentials” they need to survive once they leave the shelter. These support groups give women “safe” spaces to share experiences and begin the healing process. Women also get assistance in other needs such as applying for employment, documentation papers and housing assistance. “Before they leave the shelter, we give them skills. We give them protection, and strengthen their inner power. A woman does not leave WEA without proper settlement,” says Mano.

WEA’s work is informed by Mano’s two decade experience as a grassroots organizer – working with poor urban communities, women in the workplace, indigenous peoples, plantation workers, and survivors of violence. Since 1986, she has been targeting women factory workers and has found connections between rights in the home and the workplace. In empowering them on their rights in the workplace, “I found out that women wanted their rights at home to be addressed first before they could be leaders in their workplace,” says Mano.

Additionally, Mano has many years of experience counselling women who have experienced violence.Through her work with the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Mano reached out to the non-English speaking communities, including Indian women who did not know their rights, especially, the right to live a life free from violence.

In 2011, she received the Vocational Award for her service to the community and has been mentioned as one of LGBTIQ-friendly counsellors in Malaysia by Seksualiti Merdeka, an annual sexuality rights festival representing a coalition of Malaysian NGOs held in Kuala Lumpur.

Advocating for Change

WEA’s work with women does not end in the shelter. Violence against women is a pervasive social problem that requires different levels of intervention through advocacy, organizing, mobilizing and connecting with other institutions to advance rights and end violence.

WEA challenges government systems and policies that fail to provide safety nets and support systems for women in crisis by engaging in dialogues to encourage them to make effective changes towards ending violence.

For example, when the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said, “There is no need for a women’s movement in Malaysia because equality has been given from the start,” Mano was quick to react, “If there is equality, why are there many cases of violence against women? If women are treated as equals, why is there discrimination and abuse of women? Why is domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment happening?”

Moving forward, WEA has set an agenda to organize weekly group meetings to discuss the urgent problems that women in their community experience, including, how to effectively address domestic violence.

The promise for change comes when women begin to see and question inequalities. More and more women are beginning to see that men and women are equal despite their biological makeup and that culture plays an important role in maintaining these inequalities, adds Mano.

Mano currently works as the manager of the National Programme for the Malaysian AIDS Council, where she is responsible for raising awareness among women, youth, and marginalised communities on HIV/AIDS. She is still WEA’s Vice-President and volunteers during her spare time.

More than a mantra, Mano, along with fellow women activists from WEA, is fulfilling their vow: Let’s make every woman enjoy the right to live a life free from violence!