Refuge for abused women in Malaysia

by Women's Aid Organisation (WAO)
Survivors moving forward
Survivors moving forward

In our 33 years of empowering survivors of domestic violence, Women’s Aid Organisation has been strongly supported by scores of volunteers who have contributed in a myriad of ways - raising awareness about violence against women and raising much need funds to keep our doors open. In conjunction with our 33rd anniversary in September 2015, we launched #teamWAO to celebrate the spirit of volunteerism. With #teamWAO, we aim to inspire the community to step forward and support survivors in many ways. So, we would like to welcome you to #teamWAO.

For nine days in September, we shared survivor stories on social media. We highlighted nine women from WAO shelter who wanted their story to be told. Their stories of moving forward.

  1. Harini* and her children are survivors of domestic violence. She is a courageous and positive woman and is focused on building a great future for her and her four children. She is currently pregnant with her fifth.

    Being optimistic about her future, Harini wishes to continue with the business she started and to expand it. She is a proud owner of a motorcycle, but recognises that she needs to acquire a motorcycle license and road tax for her motorcycle. She has found a child minder for her children and is looking for a room to rent. Her eyes shone with excitement as she talked about courses she would like to attend in order to increase her skills and develop her business. “I want to get a PO (Protection Order) for me and my children, so I can have a peace of mind and focus on our future.” - Harini

  2. Rajeswari* and her children are survivors of domestic violence. She had previously left her husband without taking any of her possessions, as all she cared about were her children. When asked if she could have anything, she said that all she wanted is a safe place to live with her children. “I want to live long enough to watch my children grow up and have their own families.” - Rajeswari

  3. Vinosree* is a survivor of domestic violence and is focused on looking for a new job. She enjoys reading during her free time to keep herself occupied. She particularly enjoys adventure stories. When asked what she wished for, she said that she wanted a safe place for her and her children to live in. “I want to keep my children with me. They are now living with relative until I can find a permanent safe place to live.” - Vinosree

  4. Maureen* and her family are refugees and are waiting to be relocated. She is, however, currently focused on seeking a divorce from her husband who is a drug abuser. All she wants is to have a happy life with her children and for them to be able to attend school. She envisions a future in the US, where she would get a proper job and be a positive role model for her children. “I want my children to be protected from the drugs and negative influences of their father.” - Maureen

  5. Maria* is a survivor of domestic violence and is very grateful that her relatives have been very supportive of her during difficult times. She indicated that she values her children and family, and her relationship with God.

    Her aim is to have a fresh start—to have a safe home environment where she can raise her children and also to continue with her career. She recognises that for her to move forward, she would continue to need the help of her relatives. She also acknowledged that for her to make this transition, she would need to have more courage and spiritual strength. “I want to be reunited with my eldest child and be a family again. I just want the best for my family.” - Maria

  6. MG* had to live with her abusive stepson and wants her situation to change. As a strong and independent woman, MG feels driven to start her own business. A matter of urgency for her is that she can have a steady income to care for her three children and provide a better future for them. She would like to witness all her children finish their schooling and obtain their tertiary education. MG is a positive person and motivates other women around her to move forward and to never be afraid. Once she gets back on her feet, she plans to volunteer to help others who are in need, just as she has received help in her time of need. “I want to see my children further their studies after they are finished with school.”- MG

  7. Leyla* and her children are survivors of domestic violence. They are also refugees and left with very few pieces of clothing. During the interview, Leyla proudly wore the necklace her daughter made for her and commented that her daughter was very talented for her age. When asked what she would wish to have, she did not say she wanted riches or fame; rather, she said she would like to have more clothing for her and her family. She looks forward to being resettled - Leyla

  8. After separating from her husband, all Kavita* cares about is the betterment of her daughter. She would like to obtain full custody of her child and provide a safe and healing environment for her. What Kavita hopes for is that the Syariah Court rules fairly over her situation. Kavita plans to establish her own business by opening a food stall. Of utmost importance to her is that her daughter is able to get long-term therapy for her trauma. “The most important thing to me is that my daughter can get therapy to overcome her trauma. I recognise that her trauma has disrupted her learning, and I don’t want her to stay in that situation. I want a better life for her.” - Kavita

  9. Shalini* and her children are survivors of domestic violence. What Shalini values the most now is a safe place for her children and herself. Her goal for the near future is to look for a better environment and home. She realises that in order for her to achieve that, she would need to have a proper and stable income. She wants to be able to place her kids at a Taska (childcare centre), so she can go to work. “Having a better job and better environment for me and my kids will help me move forward.” - Shalini

If you have words of encouragement for these women, we are happy to hear from you!

*Name changed to protect WAO's client's confidentiality.

Ceramic sculptures at Publika
Ceramic sculptures at Publika

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) revealed their annual “Working Together: Case Studies in Domestic Violence Response, 2015 Report”, simultaneously launching their public education campaign with a ceramic art installation entitled, “Can You Keep A Secret?” in collaboration with Leo Burnett/ Arc Worldwide Malaysia in Publika. The launch was officiated by the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, YB Dato’ Sri Rohani Abdul Karim.

The report details the experiences of domestic abuse survivors and the challenges they faced in obtaining protection and justice. WAO also compiled a comprehensive list of recommendations directed towards relevant government authorities.

“Can You Keep a Secret?” is aimed at raising awareness on domestic violence featuring live-size ceramic head sculptures representing everyday women who could be victims of abuse. The twelve ceramic heads feature different stories of domestic violence survivors, drawing the public’s attention and urging them to speak out when it matters most – when they notice abuse.

Artist James Seet from Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide Malaysia volunteered his time and skills to create the sculptures as it was an issue he strongly wanted to champion. “Ceramic art was used to mirror real stories of survivors, representing the fragility of abused victims. Masking their internal emotions with a strong façade, victims develop deep mental and emotional scars that affect their wellbeing,“ Seet said.

“In line with Leo Burnett’s Humankind philosophy of creating work that influences behaviour, we hope to be able to bring the severity of domestic violence to attention through this art installation. This issue will not resolve overnight, but with the little exposure and education on this topic, we hope to encourage Malaysians to take action when they come across domestic violence,” James added.

“The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development prioritises women’s rights, and is working towards achieving gender equality. Malaysia is committed to our obligations to Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Ministry strongly supports efforts by government and non-governmental agencies to assist survivors of domestic violence,” the Minister stressed.

The Minister also noted that there were strengths and weaknesses in the response system for domestic violence survivors, which the report points out. The Minister added that her Ministry would “consider all suggestions and recommendations that WAO has raised in the report to better address domestic violence.”

Sumitra Visvanathan, Executive Director of WAO, emphasised the importance of multi-stakeholder collaboration in addressing domestic violence. She stated, “All relevant bodies, including non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government agencies such as hospitals and the police must work together to improve our response to domestic violence and continue to ensure that victim-survivors have access to the crucial support and assistance that we collectively provide.”

The report highlights the key role of police as first-responders in most domestic violence cases. From the 110 victim-survivors surveyed, 68 (61.8%) of them sought help from the police before anyone else.

“The police play a vital role in domestic violence response. It is exceedingly important that officers receive proper support and training to deal with these cases,” Visvanathan further commented.

Another highlight in the report is breakthrough developments in the courts where domestic violence cases are tried. For example, a victim impact statement (VIS) was successfully used in convicting a perpetrator. In another case, the perpetrator was successfully jailed for breaching a protection order, a first in Malaysia.

WAO Vice-President Tashia Peterson said at the launch, “Domestic violence must not be seen as normal; women have the right to a life free from violence. We want the public to recognise that and realise that we all have a part to play in ending domestic violence.”

“We would also like to thank Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide Malaysia for helping to make our campaign a success, as well as the office of Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, and Brickfields Asia College (BAC) for their generous support towards publishing the report. Thank you as well to Publika for providing us the space to conduct these initiatives,” she added.

The art installation was displayed in Publika from 23 June to 22 July 2015 and will be exhibited in Gardens Mall from 3 to 16 August 2015.

Be a busybody when it matters most
Be a busybody when it matters most
Dato' Sri Rohani launched the art installation
Visitors at the launch
Visitors at the launch


I met Lin three years ago, on my first day with Women’s Aid Organisation, Malaysia’s largest service provider for domestic violence survivors. Abused by her husband, she was seeking help.

Soon after she arrived, we heard a man screaming outside our one-storey office. Through a window, I saw a man whose face was covered in blood. Lin said he was her friend, and we let him in.

The man had been waiting in the car, when Lin’s husband and father appeared and beat him up. I was stunned. I could barely imagine how Lin must have felt – to be in an abusive marriage, to have her father side with her abuser, and to be intimidated when seeking help.

Hundreds of thousands of women in Malaysia have similar stories to tell. A study by Universiti Sains Malaysia released last year estimated that nine out of every hundred ever-partnered women in Peninsular Malaysia have experienced domestic violence. Each story is a painful reminder of the urgent commitment needed to end violence against women.

Domestic violence is not only widespread, it is complex. To end domestic violence, we need to transform systems—review laws and policies, improve enforcement, and change attitudes.

And while we have seen some encouraging developments in recent years, we have a long way to go.

Special legal protection for domestic violence survivors does not apply to survivors who are not married to their abusive intimate partners. There are no standard operating procedures to help multiple agencies work together to cooperatively response to domestic violence cases. Front-line responders are not given nearly enough resources to effectively handle domestic violence cases.

We are advocating reforms to ensure that the hundreds of thousands of women like Lin receive the high quality services they deserve when faced with violence, and reforms that will help prevent violence in the first place.

We are working on it, but we need your help getting there.

Your support will not only help us provide vital services for survivors of domestic violence, it will enable us to continue advocating for better systems to end violence against women.

9% of ever-partnered women in Malaysia have previously, or are currently, victimized by domestic violence. Every year, too many women in Malaysia experience violence from people they live with: whether husband, partner, family member or employer. It occurs across the social strata, in cities and in rural areas. It is preventing the enjoyment of safety and wellbeing for tens of thousands of women.

WAO wants to progressively build our capacity to respond to the above. We now want to broaden our work, particularly from a Services perspective. In preparation for this, strengthening of WAO’s core fundamentals is critical. The main emphasis will be placed on kick-starting this strengthening process in 2015, thereby paving the way for up-scaling WAO’s work in 2016.

Women’s Aid Organisation currently provides one of the main DV-focused advocacy, shelter, reintegration and case management services in Malaysia. Our advocacy and services have always been designed to strengthen state policy and access to state protection, enhance public awareness of DV and gender equality issues, as well to support our clients through the challenge of evolving from domestic violence victims into empowered survivors.

In reviewing the impact of our work so far, the team was very inspired and moved by the 9%. It begs the question whether 800,000 Malaysian women experiencing or previously experiencing domestic violence amounts to a public health crisis. It also therefore begs the question what part we could play in ensuring the scale of our advocacy and services is increased to better meet this crisis.

Our answer is: Responding to more women within the 9% must be one of WAO’s long-term goals. But before WAO can broaden the scope of our services and sharpen the edge of our advocacy, some key institutional building measures need to be successfully implemented first.

Over a month-long period, consultations took place within the WAO team to consider what works, what does not and, most important, what else can be done for us to make the most significant impact and achieve the most positive change. We have drawn from the experience and expertise of colleagues, our own tacit knowledge, consulted expert papers, research and internally available data. We have learned from this, reflected on past and current practices and examined strategies that have worked in other contexts both locally and internationally.

While the service currently provided by the WAO Social Work team is multi-faceted, intensive, frequently ground breaking and littered with success stories, it is principally focused on our shelter and its residents. We need to ensure pre-crisis and post-crisis services are also in place and functioning well. While our Advocacy activities have led to high-recognition of WAO, strengthening of legislation and ensuring public visibility of DV issues, stronger synergy with our service delivery aspect, stronger links with state responders and deeper community-level awareness is required. This could be achieved, for instance through vigorous community-based education and response, and police training initiatives.

All of this must meet non-profit benchmarks. In sum, while our successes have been many, expansion beyond our current operating framework is the right thing to do, and this is the right time to initiate it. But, before we expand, we need to prepare the groundwork.

Reaching Out to the Nine Percent is our response to the above.


Refuge is a place where you seek shelter and are away from danger. You can call it a home or a safe house but the definition of the Refuge will still be the same.

As I walked into the Refuge, I could hear children’s footsteps running to greet me. The women are seated in the living hall having deep conversations. A few others busy in the kitchen. Some of them smiled at me, having seen me before.

I sat down and spoke to my colleague, Sally Wangsawijaya. She is a social worker. I asked her what’s a typical day for her at the Refuge.

“It is unpredictable. It is unexpected. You might have plans but there will be other issues that need your urgent attention. You will need to be with the client when she obtains her protection order or get medical attention. There will be days when you don’t even get to step out because you are handling counselling calls. Then, there is also house issues. The Refuge must be tidy and organised. You attend meetings and speak to the media or give talks at schools. There is a combination of things going on at the same time”, said Sally.

Then, sometimes you get an unpleasant and abrupt shock when you see someone unfamiliar and uninvited at the gate. Perpetrators who are adamant to find their wife or partner or employee. They refuse to budge and they won’t accept no as an answer. They demand and threaten staff and residents to let them in. Some turned up with the police which to us, is unacceptable.

“This is a place where women seek protection. It is a safe house! We always remind the residents, and ourselves, to be vigilant", Sally continued.

Back in my office, I read the Letter to the Editor written by Kristine Yap, WAO’s Advocacy (Communications) Officer. It says “Being responsible for enforcing laws and protection services, the primary duty of PDRM (Polis Diraja Malaysia) is to ensure safety for all. Bearing that in mind, the role of the police in a domestic violence situation is not too different from ours, which is to protect the safety of the victim-survivor. Taking that into account, the police should not reveal the classified address of the shelter to anyone, especially not to the perpetrator”.

You can read further here:

There were many success stories where we had assistance from the police during a crisis. So, let’s remind ourselves why we are here doing this work in the first place. It is to ensure the safety of people who needs help and protection.  



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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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