The year was 1985. Malaysia had neither a law against domestic violence abuse nor adequate protections for survivors of such abuse. Their laws against rape were archaic and discouraged survivors from filing reports. Their federal constitution did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender, and their labour laws did not protect employees from sexual harassment at the workplace. “Women’s issues” were seen as private affairs and not as matters of public policy.
It was in this context that a coalition of women’s rights groups called the Joint Action Group against Violence Against Women (JAG-VAW) (today known simply as the Joint Action Group
) organised a workshop and exhibition to highlight the phenomenon of “violence against women” in Malaysia. For the first time, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, prostitution, and the negative portrayal of women in the media were highlighted as matters of public concern.
The success of this historic two-day event inspired the formation of several women’s rights organisations, including AWAM. These organisations have maintained close ties ever since, coming together through JAG to lobby collectively for a more equal and non-violent community and nation.
Since then, AWAM has worked tirelessly to advocate for, serve, and empower survivors of violence and the wider public. Through their advocacy, AWAM has taken “women’s issues” from the personal and situated them squarely in the public, political sphere. In so doing, they have helped break the silence on gender-based violence.
A quarter of a century on, AWAM can proudly claim a role in bringing about a change in public discourse and opinion around women’s rights and seeing through some significant law reforms, namely the Domestic Violence Act, enacted in 1994, and, in 2001, the inclusion of “gender” in Article 8 of the Federal Constitution.
But AWAM’s work has not been in the area of advocacy and law reform alone. From the very start, their focus has been on public education and outreach. Over the years, they have developed and run trainings on rape awareness, anti-sexual harassment policy, gender sensitisation, women’s leadership and political participation, and others. These trainings variously target healthcare providers, police officers, school-going children and teenagers, survivors, indigenous communities, the corporate sector, and government officials. Through the MAN.V and Pulau Carey outreach programmes, AWAM has also worked to build alliances with men who share their values and with marginalised communities. And through its Women Writers for Rights and Alliance Building programmes and its involvement with Fiesta Feminista, AWAM continues to work on establishing a nationwide feminist movement in Malaysia.
As well, they provide counselling and legal aid services to survivors of gender-based violence. AWAM launched the Telenita helpline in 1997 and has since been serving the public with the help of dedicated volunteer para-counsellors and chambering students from the Legal Aid Centre.
Not satisfied with fighting for the codification of their rights to be free from gender-based violence and discrimination, AWAM actively seeks to inform all women of their rights and to help us claim them in their various roles as workers, students, mothers, lovers, survivors, and so on. Along the years, AWAM has found it necessary to move beyond a focus on gender-based violence to take a more holistic view of the concerns and challenges that face women in Malaysia today. For the past several years, AWAM members have held internal and public discussions on how to best serve as a feminist organisation in their contemporary context, given the challenges of limited resources and a heavily circumscribed space for public action. These have culminated in a review of AWAM’s vision and values as well as a restructuring of the organisation.
At a retreat in 2009, AWAM members decided to articulate the core values of the organisation, those that all members agree to uphold in their daily lives and work and that would be realised in AWAM’s daily operations and organisational mission, and in the interpersonal relationships between its members and staff. These values were integrity, compassion and respect, collectivism, courage, and justice and equality. The core values, and the process of determining them, reflect AWAM’s desire to operate as a space that nourishes its members, volunteers, and the larger community which it serves.
At the same time, they have restructured the organisation to focus on key areas of research and advocacy and streamline their operations so that they are more sustainable and better adept at responding to and building alliances around emerging issues and events of relevance to their work, values, and vision. As they look at what AWAM has achieved, they are reminded of how much remains to be done. And they are determined to persist in the struggle for a better and more equal Malaysia.