Three shelters providing safe havens for women in Malaysia
Who can you turn to when doors suddenly close in your face; when your boyfriend is nowhere to be seen, and your own family can’t look you in the eye? For young women who find themselves victims of unfortunate circumstances and bad choices, three shelters provide a safe haven no matter how bad things get.
When the doors of your own home are closed to you, whose doors will open to take you in? When all is forlorn, and those closest to you, distance themselves, who can you turn to for a bit of caring?
If a young woman found herself pregnant with no boyfriend in sight, or stuck in an abusive relationship that wouldn’t go away, or suddenly find herself all alone because for some reason or other, her parents kicked her out of their home.
Who can she seek out?
When all seems lost, the Rose Virginie Good Shepherd Centre, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Birthright (under Grace Community Services) will be open to those who need them most: non judgmental, always a willing hand ready to pull you out of the dark.
The Rose Virginie centre in Perak accepts young women of all ages, backgrounds and religions who seek solace and refuge – unwed mothers, women and their children who are experiencing domestic violence and recovering survivors of rape and assault.
“The girls who come in usually call in, or are brought here on the recommendation of a friend or relative,” says Helena Vytialingam, who manages the shelter. “Some of the girls are very young – as young as 15 or 16. What we do is to explore the relationship between parent and child, and discuss the options available to her. ” This is especially important when it comes to young unwed mothers.
“What we do here at Rose Virginie is to provide support to the girl, and to protect her privacy and anonymity so that she can take her time to make a decision on what she can do,” explains Helena. “But first and foremost, we try to get some form of family support – we talk to the family members to see if they can give their daughter the support she needs.”
More often than not, especially in the case of an unwanted pregnancy, the father of the child is simply not there as for these young girls, it is a hard path to tread.
“This is not a road they can walk alone and they need help,” says Vytialingam. “For many parents, the initial shame, rejection and anger are perfectly normal, and almost all start by saying no, they want nothing to do with their daughter or her unwanted child – but almost all also have a complete reversal and change their minds.”
Every effort is made to help negotiate family shelter and support for the girl, but in the case where the family refuses to provide refuge, Rose Virginie steps in and gives the girl a temporary place to stay and medical support.
“The girls stay here for the length of time they need to try and sort out what to do – with counseling, of course,” says Helena. “The girls are always encouraged to go on with their lives, and are urged to continue to pursue whatever dreams and ambitions they had prior to their pregnancy.”
It is also during this period of time that the staff at Rose Virginie tries to help the girls reconnect with their families. “Time is basically all that is needed; time to think of what they want to do, so that they do not rush into a decision they will regret later in their lives, such as abortion. Coming here gives the girl time to settle her emotions and sort out her thoughts. It also gives their parents time to calm down.”
When it comes to unwanted pregnancies, no parent ever imagines it happening to their daughter, but Helena is firm when she says that in the end, it is all about the girl herself, and not about the stigma of having a child out of wedlock.
“You grieve,” she says, “but you move on and you’ve got to build resilience.” Not a lot of people can accept the responsibility of what they have done and move on, she explains. “It truly doesn’t have to be the end of the world.”
“I am not minimising the issue – a mistake was made, but now you need to move on and find the best course of action.”
Most of the time, the best option open to young unwed mothers is to give their babies up for adoption, or for a relative to adopt the baby legally. This usually takes anything from six months to a year. “Of course,” she stresses, “this is done only with the consent of the mother.”
“The girls are welcome to stay as long as they need to, but eventually, they must leave and resume their lives normally as possible. They may not be able to face the world so soon, but time will bring healing and acceptance.”
At Rose Virginie, all efforts are also made to help these women get back on their feet, and gain their self-esteem and self-worth again through attending classes (in various life skills) and by small home enterprises such as making sandwiches and curry puffs to sell for a small amount of pocket money.
“It is so important to teach them some life-skills, so that they can provide for themselves and regain their confidence,” explains Helena. “Here, the girls live as a family, take turns to do their chores, as they try to find themselves.”
This is especially true for women who have been in abusive relationships, or are facing immense emotional and familial turmoil.
“In cases where the woman is running from an abusive relationship, the first step we take is to ensure everyone is safe – the mother, and the children, if any. We then ensure that medical help is provided if needed, and a police report is lodged.”
“There have been girls in broken relationships, who have attempted suicide, or whose parents have objected to their boyfriends and threw them out of their own homes,” shares Helena. “Sometimes, all they need for the moment is a safe place – a place of solace where they can find a haven of support, non-judgmental understanding and security.”
“So many women have come through the doors of Rose Virginie, and have left to find their own lives again.”
Helping them find solid ground again is also the goal of the WAO shelter, located in Petaling Jaya. Although initially a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, the WAO has, over the years, extended its protection to women facing family or financial problems.
Wong Su Zane, the Social Works Manager at WAO, says they also provide housing for young unwed mothers. The shelter also functions as a temporary protection safe house for women and children.
“We provide counselling, and we guide them through their options – for example, we link them to the police, hospital, or in some cases that include foreigners, the immigration department,” explains Wong. “As for unwed mothers, we usually only accept those who are very far along, somewhere around the seventh month of pregnancy.”
In this, she elaborates, sometimes, the girls who seek help are very young, and staying the long duration of their pregnancy will often lead to severe depression – though it also largely depends on whether these girls are able to get family support at all.
“If there is no family support, or they have been thrown out of their homes, we provide shelter for the girls who are in their fifth month of pregnancy onward. In the case of abusive boyfriends or husbands, we provide any shelter we can.”
Basically, what they do is to help them plan what to do with their child. “Whatever they decide, whether to keep the child or give her/him up for adoption, we help them weigh the pros and cons,” says Wong.
At the shelter, the WAO also helps prepare them for the delivery, by taking them to clinics for registration and check-ups.
If in the case where the mother decides to let go of the child, the WAO guides her through the pain of separation, and help her move on and adapt to society again.
“But should the mother decide to keep the child, we will then extend her stay for a few weeks while we teach her how to care for herself and for her baby.”
In some cases, though, shares Wong, the young mother will not want her family to know – and the WAO respects that. “It is all about the girl herself and what she decides. We definitely want her to gain family support, but in the end, it is about what she wants or doesn’t want. But we will be at hand to support her through her decisions.” Some parents, Wong says, have also brought their pregnant daughters to the WAO, only to change their mind and reject them completely later.
But no matter what the case, Wong says that the WAO is there to offer advice and counsel in their times of trouble.
Many shelters have made it their mission to help women weather through the worst of their turbulent times, and Birthright is no different. As a community service organisation, Birthright helps young unwed mothers, giving them a safe place to give birth to their babies and get back on their feet. Mary Anne Chai, a community worker with Birthright and Grace Community Services has worked closely with Birthright since its official launch in 2002 and has counseled numerous young girls who have come through the doors of Birthright –distraught, disturbed and unsure of their futures.
This shelter believes in the sanctity of life, and functions as a place for unwed mothers to stay and get the help, advice and security they need. With a ‘no-abortion’ concept, Birthright focuses on assisting these young women through their pregnancy, medically and emotionally, and also provide food and lodging throughout their stay.
Each shelter, in the end, has but one aim in mind: to be a safe haven for women when they become victims of both unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices.