A quarter of a century after its modest start, the Penang-based WCC is firmly focussed on its goals

It was the mid-1980s and the international women’s movement was sweeping across the globe. From the struggles of women’s suffrage and political rights groups which started in the 18th century, the fight had evolved into a campaign for equality, and to end gender discrimination.

In this charged atmosphere, prominent women’s groups in Malaysia were born.

Pockets of women came together to help create a more equal playing field for other women, and they set up centres in the country’s capital.

One exception was the Women’s Crisis Centre (WCC, now known as the Women’s Centre for Change), which took root up north instead, in Penang.

This year, WCC, as well as JAG (the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality), an umbrella organisation comprising five influential women’s groups in the country, celebrated their silver jubilees, still as stoic as ever about protecting and empowering women in society.

As with most organisations, the WCC started out as a small group of volunteers wanting to reach out to others.

In 1984, a handful of women and men (yes, men) in Penang banded together to start an aid group for abused women. Banking on their different talents and expertise, they started counselling services for victims of domestic violence in a room located at the carpark of the former King Edward VII Memorial Hospital on Macalister Road.

“The founding group actually had a good cross-section of people equipped to help abused women, including a social worker, a lawyer and an academic,” says current WCC executive director Loh Cheng Kooi. They came in on a voluntary basis, to counsel, answer phone calls and handle emergencies both at the office and in people’s homes.

The group was formally registered on July 1,1985, and soon, the members realised they had to do more than just cater to the needs of battered women.

“JAG started its first campaign against violence against women in 1985, which we were a part of. WCC also held its very first public forum in 1986 on ‘Women in Crisis’, that was attended by 180 people. That was the start of our community outreach programmes and legal advocacy,” Loh says.

These two areas of focus – advocacy and outreach – are equally important to WCC, which changed its name to the Women’s Centre for Change in 2002, to reflect current developments.

In its first year, WCC reached out to 13 women through face-to-face counselling and telephone calls. “We hired our first paid staff member in 1986 to help co-ordinate all the activities,” Loh says.

Awareness of its existence grew through talks and by word of mouth and it was finally able to buy its first women’s shelter in 1990. The shelter was set up because in some serious cases “there was a need for the woman to remove herself from the home, but she did not have any family support system.”

The first shelter was located in Gelugor, and that same year, WCC moved its office to its current location on Jones Road. It grew in numbers too: in 1995, it had 17 committee members, who reached out to 273 clients.

The following year, the centre chalked two milestones with the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

When the act was passed, WCC became the first women’s organisation to help set up a One-Stop Crisis Centre (OSCC) at a government hospital. At its the launch at the Penang Hospital, the-then Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng announced that henceforth, all state hospitals had to set up an OSCC for sexual abuse survivors, Loh recalls.

At the start of the next decade, WCC recorded 1,471 clients. In 2002, with the Internet swiftly gaining ground, the centre decided it was time to extend its services via the Web.

“We started counselling through email. Since then, we get emails from all over the country, including Sabah and Sarawak, seeking information or advice on various issues.” That year, too, WCC moved its shelter to its present, undisclosed location.

In 2005, a single mothers’ support group was initiated to help former domestic violence victims raise their self-esteem, become financially self-sufficient and improve their parenting skills. WCC also began to monitor the disturbing figures of rape cases in the country.

The Rape Survivors Support Network, a collaborative project between WCC and the Penang Hospital, was launched in April 2008 to provide swift help to rape victims, says WCC programme director Prema Devaraj.

“Rape is centred on control and power, not so much sexual gratification, as some people assume. What we try to do with victims is give the power back to them.”

But the decision to accept help can only be made by the victims, so WCC only goes to the OSCC when a victim chooses to talk to someone. Four staff members and two volunteers are on call round-the-clock. Since it was set up, the network has worked with some 80 rape survivors.

On Jan 19, 2009, WCC fulfilled its dream of reaching out to abused women on Penang’s mainland with the opening of the Women’s Service Centre (Pusat Perkhidmatan Wanita or PPW) in Seberang Prai.

The centre, funded by the Penang Women, Family and Community Development committee, is tasked to WCC, which now also provides counselling and legal advice to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Last year, WCC’s Jones Road office and the PPW together conducted 2,709 counselling sessions for women.

Currently, WCC offers counselling in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin and Tamil, as well as various local dialects. Its team of 12 committee members, eight staff (including three social workers cum project officers) and over 30 active volunteers still runs Penang island’s sole domestic violence shelter, which provides refuge to an average of 10 women and 15 children a year.

When WCC was formed in the 1980s, several other pioneer women’s groups like the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Women Development Collective and Sisters in Islam also took root.

Banding together in 1985, they established JAG, then called the Joint Action Group against Violence against Women. It has since changed its name to the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality. Through JAG, WCC has aided and spearheaded campaigns for legal reforms for the protection and empowerment of women.

After its inception, JAG kicked off with a major campaign to push for amendments to existing laws concerning rape.

Subsequently, the police force started setting up sexual assault units in all the main police stations, where female officers were on hand to deal with cases of sexual violence.

In 1994, JAG celebrated again when Parliament passed the Domestic Violence Act (DVA), although it was another two years before the Act was implemented.

But weaknesses in the DVA soon surfaced and JAG pushed for further amendments in 1999.

In the late 1990s and into the new millennium, JAG and WCC continued lobbying for domestic crimes to be treated as crimes of family violence, as opposed to other criminal violence acts.

When the Child Bill was formulated in 2000, WCC sent 14 recommendations for the proposed bill. That year also saw the start of the landmark Copthorne case, in which four former employees of Copthorne Orchid Penang brought a suit against the hotel for wrongful dismissal.

Supported by WCC, the women testified about their experiences in the Industrial Court. Seven years later, the court found in favour of the four claimants on Oct 30, 2007, and awarded them RM308,642 in back wages and compensation in lieu of reinstatement.

To date, a proposed amendment on sexual harassment under the Employment Act has seen its first reading in Parliament, but WCC’s campaign continues. (See Pushing for protection, SM6).

The Ministry of Women, Family and Community was formed in 2001, closely followed by what Loh calls the most important event for women in Malaysia.

“In 2002, we finally got an amendment to Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender. This was singularly the most important thing that had happened for women in Malaysia.”

Unfortunately, there was no subsequent move to change all the other existing laws that are discriminatory to gender to match this new Federal Constitution amendment, she adds.

For example, Article 15 of the Federal Constitution allows a foreign spouse of a Malaysian man to apply for citizenship, but not the foreign spouse of a Malaysian woman.

In 2004, the Dewan Rakyat approved a Select Committee to review the Penal Code (Amendment) 2004 and Criminal Procedure Code (Amendment) 2004 bills and make recommendations. JAG promptly pushed for the criminalisation of marital rape, among other issues.

In 2006, JAG started campaigning for a wider Gender Equality Law, which is still being considered by the lawmakers.

Today, WCC members are familiar faces around the George Town courthouse, as they go about helping rape and other sexual violence victims get their day in court.

Extracts from a longer article at http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2010/8/1/lifefocus/6745861&sec=lifefocus


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