On International Women’s Day 2023, Tenaganita would like to reiterate that the reality of gender discrimination and violence is a shared experience by Malaysian women, migrant and refugee women, in their families, their workplaces, their communities and public spaces.
Our work with plantation women workers, refugee and asylum seekers from the communities of Rohingya, Myanmar ethnic groups, Afghan, Pakistani, Sudanese, Somali, Yemeni have uncovered how grievous are the magnitude of the realities of gender-based violence.
The women whom we have been working with, live with physical and emotional abuses, especially coercive control that is less visible for years. Seeking assistance and pursuing justice is hardly possible due to the heavy reliance of law enforcement on bodily injuries as evidence of the crime.
The women have experienced multiple victimisations by husband, extended families (in laws) and have been further shamed and excluded from their own communities.
Despite experiencing such oppressive situations, a few have reached out to seek refuge and escape from security threats. Unfortunately, the most common response to gender-based violence in the refugee community is silence.
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To make matters worse, from the lived experiences of several refugee and plantation women, the communities did not just remain silent but actively shamed and victimised women who endured gender-based violence.
It is also obvious that gender-based violence has been affecting women and girls, for they undergo tremendous mental distress. Girls and children adopt violent behaviour including coercive control and become prone to bad social influence such as drug use, couple conflict and divorce. This ultimately causes women to bear the risk of becoming single mothers who are further being shamed and unsupported by the community, which leads to difficulty in finding work to survive.
We were made aware that many refugee families share one house to live in due to financial constraints. Issues due to lack of privacy at home were shared by women plantation workers, where plantation houses had a limited number of bedrooms.
They even shared that a couple (husband and wife) can no longer be intimate after they have children due to the limited space. This this situation limits the fulfilment of sexual needs and healthy communications of the marriage couple, leading to distress and conflict.
This experience shows that limited access to livelihood suffered by women and men of displaced communities, even Malaysians, is incapacitating and lowering their mental wellbeing and quality of life.
Gender-based violence and gender discrimination experienced by women stem from social norms, beliefs and the cultural practice of patriarchy that sees men and women as unequal and that devalues women. The women also mentioned several traditional sayings and terms used in the community that reflect how women are devalued just because they are thought of as incapable of making money or generating income.
The lived experience of the local plantation women shows that they have moved away from traditional gender norms, such as women only doing household chores and men working outside. In fact, these plantation women have managed to engage in paid work outside their homes. Other communities like the Chin and Burmese ethnic women are able to do so too.
However some women, including those from the Pakistani, Somali, Afghan, Sudanese, Yemeni and Rohingya refugee communities, are bound by cultural beliefs which discourage and even restrict them from doing paid work outside their homes.
The refugee women’s aspiration to work outside home and earn an income is still relatively more restricted by husbands, families and community beliefs about working women and their husbands’ consent and more so by a lack of refugees’ right to work.
For migrant women who have opted to leave their home and find work in Malaysia, many in domestic work find themselves in a dangerous zone, with a lack of legal protection. Domestic work has been systematically excluded, at least partially from the Employment Act 1955 and the minimum wage order.
Grievous cases of abuse suffered by domestic workers like Adelina Lisao, Nirmala Bonat and Mariance Kabu – be it physical abuse, sexual abuse and harassment; years of unpaid wages; working without a day off; or isolation without right to communication – stem from gender norms that regard domestic work as ‘women’s work’ and not dignified work – work that is unrecognised, only equal to servitude. These have been translated into laws that do not regard such work as equal to other paid work, translating into an attitude and behaviour of disrespect towards women workers.
The root causes of gender-based violence and discrimination are well-documented worldwide; as such the knowledge should lead us to continual efforts to build healthier family and communities that support survivors of gender-based violence and promote gender equality; to build communities that practise gender equality, that saves and protects victims and survivors of gender-based violence; to educate men, women, boys and girls to be gender sensitive and have a mindset, attitude and behaviour that upholds gender equality.
The bright side is that refugee women and anyone exposed to knowledge and concepts of human rights and women rights have shifted their beliefs about gender roles and gender relations and feel empowered. In some cases, it made some women braver and made the decision to come out of abusive relationships (through divorce), leave an abusive working environment, survive and become independent persons.
Tenaganita hopes there will be better support systems for women victimised by and surviving gender-based violence and gender discrimination, so that they have a variety of options to overcome gender-based violence, such as improving couple relationships; cominig to a mature decision of maintaining life together as couples or reuniting or separating.
We hope there can be specific attention to regulatory bodies to ensure access to affordable and decent housing that accommodates the need of privacy, healthy sexual needs and family wellbeing.
In the plantation sector and domestic work, the struggle to unionise women workers with equal representation will continue, while pushing the recognition of domestic work as work through laws and regulations.
Let us continue to create safe spaces for all women where we can rise above violence and discrimination. – Tenaganita