Malaysia: New project addresses violence against women
In honour of International Women’s Day, we would like to take the opportunity to highlight one of our partner projects, where indigenous women have taken the lead and confronted challenges facing their community. In 2013, IWGIA partnered with the Sabah Women Action Resource Group (SAWO) to address violence against women in the Northern Sabah region of Malaysia, and we have recently renewed the project.
“This is the first time that such a project is being undertaken in Sabah, a state that is one of the poorest in Malaysia and where the needs and rights of rural people, particularly women, are often ignored and overlooked by political leaders and government development agencies,” said Winnie Yee, project coordinator and SAWO president.
Malaysian women have fought for their rights since independence in 1963, and while the government has gradually adopted a more gender sensitive approach to development, women and young girls in the project area have not benefitted from these advances. They continue to live their lives as wives and mothers, and are often vulnerable to discrimination and violence. Most are married off at a young age and have hardly any recourse should their husbands take new wives, abandon, or abuse them.
Creating change from within the community
A survey of eight villages conducted by the project found that 47 to 100 percent of adult women have suffered some form of emotional, sexual, or physical violence. The project also found that almost all of the districts covered lacked the necessary facilities and personnel to provide support and protection to survivors of violence against women (VAW). In addition, women who do not accept violence in their lives are frequently ignored and not given the assistance promised by the country’s laws.
With support from IWGIA, SAWO in close cooperation with indigenous organization Pacos Trust, spearheaded a project to address these issues. So far, the project spans 27 villages scattered over five districts in the region, and vital ties to the communities have been established. The project has trained 52 community allies and formed five local support groups for VAW survivors to contact if they are not satisfied with the services provided by government agencies.
“The most important achievement so far is the empowerment of our local support groups and the provision of an avenue for rural women to voice their grievances and suffering,” said Yee. “Before this, they had no-one to turn to and their feeling of being heard at last is so comforting and empowering.”
The project was renewed in January 2015, and IWGIA will continue to support SAWO and their local partners in addressing VAW. The area covered by the current project is small, and there are many more villages in the region that need to increase their capacity to deal with VAW issues. Going forward, SAWO aims to reach more rural community groups, and invite men to become part of the solution by involving them in the project.
The outcome document from the 69th World Conference on Indigenous Peoples shows promise for SAWO’s cause. Specifically, it invites the “Human Rights Council to consider examining the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women and girls” and calls on the UN Commission on the Status of Women to consider the issue of empowering indigenous women at a future session.