LETTER | On this 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, workplaces, communities and public spaces.
Our work with plantation women workers, refugees and asylum seekers from the communities of Rohingya, Myanmar Ethnics, Afghan, Pakistani, Sudanese, Somali, and Yemeni has uncovered how grievous the magnitude of gender-based violence (GBV) realities is.
The women whom we have been working with, live with physical, and emotional abuse, especially coercive control which 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 husbands, and extended families (in-laws), and further shamed and excluded from their own communities. Despite experiencing such oppression situations, a few have reached out to help-seeking refuge and escape from security threats.
Unfortunately, the most common response to violence in the refugee community is silence. To make matters worse, lived experiences of several refugee and plantation women, the communities did not just remain silent, but actively shamed and victimised women who endured GBV.
It is also obvious that GBV has been impacting women and girls, for they undergo tremendous mental distress.
Girls and children adopting violent behaviour including coercive control, and prone to bad social influence such as drug use; couple conflict and divorce ultimately cause 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 due to financial constraints. Issues due to lack of privacy at home were shared by plantation women workers, where plantation houses had a limited number of bedrooms.
Further, they even shared that a couple (husband and wife) can no longer be intimate after they have children due to the limited space, therefore this situation limits the fulfilment of sexual needs and healthy communications of the married couple which led 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 mental well-being and quality of life.
GBV and gender discrimination experienced by women stem from social norms, beliefs, and cultural practices of patriarchy that see men and women as unequal and devaluing 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, and other communities like the Chin and Burmese ethnic women are able to do too. However, the women from Pakistani, Somali, Afghan, Sudanese, Yemeni, and Rohingya refugee communities are bound by cultural beliefs which discourage and even restrict them to do paid work outside of their homes.
Refugee women’s aspiration to work outside the home and earn an income is still relatively more restricted by husband, family, and community belief about working women and husband consent, and more so by lack of refugee rights to work.
For migrant women who have opted to leave their homes and find work in Malaysia, many 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, Mariance Kabu, and many more, be it physical abuse, sexual abuse and harassment; years of unpaid wages; working without days off; isolation without the right to communication, etc. stem from gender norm that domestic work, women's work is not a dignified work, unrecognised, only equal to servitude.
These have been translated into laws that do not put it equal to other paid work, translated into the attitude and behaviour of disrespecting women workers.
The root causes of this violence and discrimination are well-documented worldwide, as such the knowledge should lead us to continuous efforts to build healthier families and communities that support GBV survivors and promote gender equality; to build a community that practices gender equality, safety, and protects GBV victims/survivors; to educate men, women, boys, and girls to be gender-sensitive, having gender equality mindset, attitude, and behaviours.
The bright side is that refugee women and anyone exposed to knowledge and concepts of human rights and women's rights 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 (divorce), leaving an abusive working environment, surviving, and becoming independent person.
Tenaganita hopes that there will be better support systems for women victimised by and surviving GBV and gender discrimination, so they have a variety of options to overcome GBV such as improving couple's relationships; a matured decision of maintaining life together as a couple/reunited or separated.
We hope there can be specific attention to regulatory bodies to ensure access to affordable and decent housing that accommodates the need for privacy, healthy sexual needs and the well-being of the family.
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 law and regulations.
Let us continue to create safe spaces for all women where we can rise above violence and discrimination.
Happy International Women’s Day!
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.