Refuge for abused women in Malaysia

by Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)

When *Neha’s case was first brought to WAO’s attention, Neha was in an immigration detention centre, facing the inevitable deportation. Neha had been living in Malaysia for 10 years as a foreign spouse. Recently, she had been facing accusations by her husband and his family. Besides experiencing abuse in her marriage, Neha’s husband also refused to renew her spousal visa, resulting in Neha having to live with no legal documents in Malaysia for a period of time. Adding to this, Neha’s husband kept her passport in his possession. Due to this, Neha was later detained.

With WAO’s assistance, Neha was released and came to stay at the WAO refuge. Initially, Neha was confused. She was in disbelief that this had happened to her. Neha also worried about her two children from whom she had been separated from. She had recently filed for custody of her children but was unsure of the future of her marriage. Expounding this were her continuing challenges in obtaining valid documents that would allow her to stay in Malaysia.

Through counseling provided by her social worker, Neha found that although she was unsure of her husband, gaining her children back was most important to her. She also understood her rights as a foreign spouse and what to do should she face abuse again. In her time at the WAO refuge, Neha also gained independence and initiative in accessing resources for protection. This gave her more confidence for her case at court. 

Upon a court order with provisions for Neha’s safety and documentation in Malaysia, Neha left the WAO shelter in November. She is aiming to look for a job to ensure financial independence for herself.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

For months, Munira* called the WAO Hotline to talk to the social workers. For months, she spoke about leaving her husband but she wasn’t ready. For months, she was concerned about her child having to live with this kind of torture. Five months later, Munira stepped out of the house, after 11 years of marriage, and into a safer space for her and her son.

Looking back, Munira realised that she has suffered from psychological and financial abuse. If she asked her husband why he didn’t come home the night before, he would pretend that he has told her and accused that she forgot. He would also scream and shout at her for hours every night and she wouldn’t get to sleep.

Munira has been financially supporting the family for five years. Her husband didn’t have any interest in holding a job and often gambled her money away. She gave him RM600 from her small pay every month.

During her conversation with her social worker, Munira brought up the reasons why it was so difficult for her to leave. She said that her own family situation was far worse than what she was experiencing. And so she felt that she could live with it. Her husband also used his surgery which took place more than five years ago as a reason to hold her back. It became very difficult for Munira to move on.

At WAO, Munira got herself some time to focus on her son and her life. Despite showing signs of insecurity, Munira was a very responsible person. As part of the security measure, Munira was asked if she would consider changing her job because her husband could easily find her there. But Munira was adamant to stay on her job.

During her stay at the shelter, the social worker worked closely with Munira to build her confidence. She was asked to list down five things that she wanted to achieve while staying at the shelter. One of it was to ensure that her son got help as Munira was concerned that he didn’t get to express himself after all that has happened at home.

Munira’s son was put into play therapy at WAO to help him work out his emotions through play. He was also registered under WAO’s Anak Angkat programme to get his education funded in a year by sponsors. Munira was very focused throughout her journey to recovery. She decided to file for a divorce and worked on getting custody of her child.

She said that many years ago, she had suicidal thoughts. She had those thoughts even when she was just a child. At 20, she contemplated suicide. After everything that she has gone through with her marriage and now that she has gotten help, she believed that she needed to be stronger to protect herself and her son.

Munira has left the shelter and moved on with her life. Her son continued attending play therapy sessions and showed signs of improvement.

Munira might not have experienced physical abuse but domestic violence also manifests itself as psychological or verbal abuse. The impact is just as damaging.

Domestic violence affects one in nine ever-partnered women in Malaysia according to the 2014 study by Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Research on Women and Gender (KANITA). Let’s do something about it. Let's end violence against women.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

*Swara is from Myanmar. A 20 year old woman hoping for a better life. Swara’s father urged her to leave the country during a crisis and she made her way to Malaysia. During her journey, Swara was smuggled into the jungle and kept there with a few other women.

Swara is a rape survivor. For months, the agents whom she thought would lead her to a job, tortured her and she endured the ordeal. When they released all the women except for her, she knew she had to find a way out. She told herself to be strong despite feeling terrified of the terrible violence and trauma that they have caused her.

Swara managed to escape one day with the help of some nearby villagers. As soon as she got out, Swara went looking for a relative she knew from her father. She needed a safe place to hide from the perpetrators. Together with her relative, Swara approached the UN for help and Swara was referred to WAO for shelter.

Swara stayed in the WAO Refuge for almost a year. She took time to heal and get her life back on track again. Swara received counselling and all the support she needed from her social worker. At one of the regular sessions, Swara was asked to pick a picture card. She picked an image of a jungle which she said was beautiful but frightening. She talked about what happened in the jungle and said “I will not give up. I know one day, I will see the light!” When she was asked what has kept her going, Swara told her social worker that her inner strength came from her parents. She is a courageous young woman who wants to regain control of her life.

Swara will be resettling soon. She plans to continue with her education.


*Name has been changed to protect identity

*Maznah and her husband met when they were medical students. She completed her studies and graduated as a medical doctor. Her husband stopped pursuing his education and was not keen to work. So, Maznah began working to support him. When he expressed interest in starting a food business, Maznah took loans to help him out. Maznah's husband became violent years later. Maznah was physically and financially abused. He also restricted her social contact. Maznah did not seek help as she is unsure of what to make of her situation. When she heard a radio interview featuring two WAO social workers, she decided to call WAO's hotline asking for help anonymously. She also contacted WAO's SMS helpline, TINA (Think I Need Aid). 

In the following years, Maznah was severely abused by her husband and she had to escape. She lodged a police report and also went to the hospital but was uncomfortable being there. She was afraid that her colleagues will know of her situation. She spent several nights by the roadside near the police station fearing for her life and unable to go home. She quickly sought help from WAO. 

After several months of pursuing the case, Maznah attended 3 court hearings. Her husband was charged under section 323 of the penal code for causing grievous hurt. He was fined for MYR1,500.

Maznah remained positive. She wanted to help other women overcome domestic violence and became a columnist for a newspaper highlighting women's issues specifically domestic violence.

She has expressed to WAO of her interest in setting up a support group for women who have gone through similar experiences so that they can support each other.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

Handmade accessories
Handmade accessories

At the end of 2015, WAO initiated a pilot Social Entrepreneurship Project under the Women's Programme which aims to empower women to become more financially independent. The project equipped women in the shelter with the necessary skills to generate additional income for her and her family.

For the first stage, the Social Entrepreneurship Project will only last for three months to gauge interest of the residents. A sharing session was conducted with them to explain the project. A Social Worker also brought the women to attend regular sewing workshops to learn basic sewing skills. We also encourage them to make decisions on the type of products they would like to make, source for inspiration and purchase required materials and supplies. They were guided by the Programme Officer but also made efforts to communicate with each other for support and motivation.

The residents produced beautiful fabric bags, purses, fashion accessories such as bracelets and necklaces and hair accessories. The opportunity to market these products arrived when we were invited by the Association of British Women in Malaysia (ABWM) to set up a booth at their annual Christmas Charity Bazaar. The women introduced the items they made and had a great time having conversations with their customers.

We are happy to note that the Project that was meant to provide the residents with a small income also became a platform that helps rebuild their self confidence and communication skills. They showed progress and were keen to continue the project.

Colourful handmade bags
Colourful handmade bags
Lovely bracelets
Lovely bracelets
At the ABWM booth
At the ABWM booth

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Organization Information

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)

Location: Petaling Jaya, Selangor - Malaysia
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Sumitra Visvanathan
Petaling Jaya, Selangor Malaysia

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