A Survey on Women's Rights

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A Survey on Women's Rights


Summary of Findings
Case Study: Alice
Needs and Rights Identified



Domestic violence is a serious and widespread problem. For the past twenty years Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) has provided shelter for 1525 battered women, offered counselling or support services to 21,841 women in need, mostly on the issue of domestic violence. In 2000, after leaving the shelter, 32% of the women returned to their former situation, but the majority (68%) of the women went on to live independently.


Number of children of the respondents
 Age of children


In an attempt to access the residents' needs once they go on to live independently, WAO conducted a survey on the ex-residents. This survey was conducted in 1998. The 25 women who participated in this survey were all women who were abused, who sought shelter at WAO, and who are now living independently. All of the ex-residents surveyed had children, except for one. Nearly half (12) of the mothers had between three to four children. The women surveyed were thus not only survivors of domestic violence but also, except for one, single mothers. 

Even though this Needs Assessment Survey was based on a small sample (n=25) of domestic violence survivors, we feel that the information gathered through this survey is of immense value. Ending an abusive relationship often puts the women in a situation where they have to provide for themselves and their family. It was the case for all the survey participants who all but one, were single mothers with children to take care of. We need to gain a better understanding of the situation of the women that do decide to leave their abusive partner so we can offer them better support. 

WAO recommends continued research and analysis take place on the needs of survivors of domestic violence and their family. Since all but one of the respondents were single mothers, some needs identified might be common to the general population of single mothers as well. If we consider the fact that domestic violence is a widespread problem in Malaysia and that the needs of survivors may join the needs of single-mothers in general, we feel it to be necessary that Annual National Statistics on Women be collected and analysed by both governmental organisations and NGOs. With continued effort and information acquisition, knowledge about survivors of domestic violence, their status, their family, their health and their needs can be brought to the attention of the appropriate sources and their needs better met.

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Summary of Findings

Eighty-four percent (21) of the respondents were employed at the time of the survey. Their monthly income ranged from RM201 to RM1400. It is important to note here that the women surveyed are well below the mean monthly gross household income of RM2453. Rather, 11 respondents fall in the low-income household bracket, earning less than RM1500 monthly; and 2 are even living in poverty, earning less than RM450 monthly.

As having one's own business is one way to gain employment or to have extra money, we asked ex-residents if they had ever been in business for themselves. A little over half the women (14) said yes. Seventy-two percent (18) of the respondents expressed interest in starting their own business but half of them (9) said that they would need additional training in order to do so, and all (except for one missing answer) said they would need financial assistance.

Respondents quoted their average monthly expenditures for basic living between RM200 to RM2000. Most of the women (14) reported expenditures between RM200 and RM799. They mostly spent money on rent (15 spend between RM101 to RM300), food (10 spend between RM101 to RM300) and schooling for children (10 spend between RM100 to RM250).

Almost all of the women sought medical treatment at General Hospital when needed. For most of the respondents, the cost of such treatment was RM50 or less per month, but could at times reach RM100. Forty-four percent (11) of the ex-residents showed at least one chronic medical problem.

Of the respondents surveyed, 68% (17) rented their home, 12% (3) lived with their family, and 12% (3) of the respondents lived in housing provided by their employer. Only one woman owned her home (her father had given it to her), and one lived in low cost housing. Only two women had applied for low-cost housing in the past and only one received the rented flat whilst another received it in a new housing area in the suburbs. One third of the women (8) were actually living in squatter areas in, often, poor sanitary conditions. Many of the women lacked the following living necessities: 50% (11) lacked living room furniture, 45% (10) did not have a phone, 35% (8) lacked bedroom furniture, and 26% (6) did not have a refrigerator.

Welfare Department
More than half (14) of the respondents have sought the assistance of the Welfare Department since leaving their abusive homes. The women sought assistance from the Welfare Department for multiple reasons, but mainly in relation to domestic violence (10). Other reasons were: to ask for welfare aid (7), report the violation of an Interim Protection Order (IPO) (3), a custody battle (1), or to ask for child protection (1). Most of the time it seems that the welfare department met some of the women's requests. But in 8 instances nothing was done. Due to the low income of the respondents (average of RM600 or less per month) half of the women surveyed would qualify for welfare financial assistance but only three received financial aid.

Nearly half (12) of the respondents sought assistance from the police. They did so mainly for reasons related to their husbands and domestic violence. In only three cases were there police investigations. In two other cases police tried to settle the dispute, urging the wife and husband to remain together and settle their problems quietly. In six cases there was no investigation at all.

Legal Assistance
Forty-four percent (11) of the ex-residents sought legal assistance of some sort. Most of the women surveyed went to the Legal Aid Bureau (9), the Legal Aid Centre (2) or a private lawyer (2) (multiple answers)They went to ask for legal assistance regarding divorce (9), child custody (2), or maintenance (2). At the time of the survey most of the women's cases were still pending. Their experience with the lawyer or legal assistant was, in general, a positive one but some respondents cited that they experienced the following: staff seemed busy and confused, the fees were still very high for them, they needed an interpreter, or they were referred to a private lawyer. These fees reach at least RM520, with RM20 to open a file, RM 250 for dispersements fees and another RM250 for filing fees. Depending on the cases, the fees can go higher.

All but one woman had children when they decided to leave home. Children are an important motivation factor for the women to strive forward. They want to have their children with them, have a house for them, provide them with a good education, and so forth. Now living independently, half (12) of the mothers had all their children living with them. Four mothers had some of their children with them while the others were in homes, with relatives, with their father, with an adoptive mother or were independent. But 7 of the mothers had to leave all of their children in homes or with relatives because they could not afford to keep them. Thus, more than half (43) of the total 82 children were living with their mothers, but a quarter (24) was living in children's homes.

Family and Friends 
Family and friends can be a source of support when in need. But in some cases it may not always be true. They may not be supportive and may even pressure the respondents to remarry. We asked the ex-residents if they were in touch with their family and friends and if they went to them for help. Most of the respondents (21) were in touch with their family. Those who were not said it was because their family was neither helpful nor supportive, they did not have the money or the time to see them, or because they had no family. When in need of help, women tended to seek it mostly from their friends (11) rather than from their family (4). Almost half (12) of the respondents stated that they did not rely on either family or friends. They relied only on themselves and independent sources of aid such as WAO.

Personal security and Future Relationships
All of the women interviewed were living independently at the time of the survey. Most were doing so securely, but 24% (6) were still in hiding from their abusive husbands or partners. Although the majority (17) of the respondents knew where their husband/abuser was living, 14 were not aware as to whether or not he was looking for them or for their children at time of survey. We asked the women if they felt pressured to remarry. 22% (5) of the respondents stated that they felt pressured by their family, and 29% (6) reported feeling pressured from society. They went on to say that they felt that society perceived them as being courageous, brave, and a good mother. However, some also felt that they were pitied and seen as a threat or as an embarrassment.

Community Based Networks
When asked how they felt before coming to WAO, they replied that they felt fearful and scared, they were depressed, upset, and were pessimistic about their future. After leaving WAO and pursing an independent life, many felt better about themselves and their lives. They felt more confident, braver, better, more independent, at peace, happy and free. They were happy with their lives, feeling at peace, free, secure and independent. They attributed this change in feeling mostly to WAO's guidance and counselling (6), their experiences (5), learning to live independently (5), and meeting other women (4).

Moving Forward
While some women were still working through their emotions and trying to survive on a day-to-day basis, most (20) were setting goals for the future. Women stated that they want to make a home for their children (6), start their own business (5), get a good job (4), provide their children with a quality education (4), have their children live with them (3), and further their own studies (2).

We asked the respondents what WAO or other organisations could do to help them better and further in achieving their goals. Here are their answers:

  • Help single mothers attain housing
  • Provide more accommodation
  • Provide practical education (computer, typing, etc.)
  • Help single mothers attain custody of their children
  • Organize meetings for single mothers
  • Set up women's hostels 

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Case Study: Alice

Alice (not her real name) was married in 1979. Her parents had arranged her marriage and she knew little of her husband or her husband's family before her wedding day. Soon after she was married, her husband began to severely and routinely beat her. When she was four months pregnant with her third child she was beaten so badly that her womb began to bleed forcing her into an early labour. She delivered the baby prematurely by emergency Caesarean section. She left her husband soon thereafter. She did not pursue a divorce as she had been married customarily and to attain a divorce she would have needed to go through the tedious process of having her marriage validated. She did not have the financial resources, the time, or the energy to do these things.

Her family, ashamed of her failed marriage, did not offer much help, financial or emotional. With three children and no means of support she sought refuge at WAO. After leaving WAO she went to look for accommodation, a job, and the means to raise her three children alone. It took her two years to secure full-time employment and even when she did it, was for low pay at long hours.

Her only means of financial support were loans from personal friends and from WAO. She was unaware of welfare aid available and when asked if she had ever heard of such aid from advertisements, friends or relatives, she replied, "no". Alice had gone to the police for help when her husband continued to beat her, but she found them to be of little help. Feeling that domestic violence is a "family issue", the police officers paid little attention to her complaints. On one visit she was persuaded by an officer to remove her gold chain and give it to him for safekeeping. She never saw it again. On other visits, police officers made unwanted sexual advances on her, asking for her phone number or giving her theirs. Now distrustful and uncomfortable of such officers, Alice avoids the police whenever possible, even when she is in need of help.

Alice's three children all attended school and two are planning on finishing Secondary school, but the road was long and hard. With school expenses at RM300 per child per year, the cost of stationary, books, and uniforms were always hard to bear. Alice did receive some textbooks on loan from the government, but stationary and uniforms remained her responsibility. She received financial assistance from a benefactor; an Australian family for whom she worked for as a domestic servant and child minder. But even with this money, paying school expenses for her three children was a great task. Transportation and childcare were also major difficulties for Alice. In order to work she needed to pay someone else to care for her children and arrange for transportation. Working as a domestic worker and child minder she was able to keep her children with her, avoiding childcare costs, but work such as this was usually short term and erratic.

Medical costs were also a great problem. Her daughter, who suffers from asthma, often required immediate emergency medical treatment. Although government hospitals are available and with reduced fees they serve as an affordable and reliable alternative to private hospitals, the time and energy needed to utilize such hospitals were often too much. For Alice to take her daughter to the government hospital she needed to take a taxi. At times the fare exceeded RM20. Queues at government hospitals are long and tiresome, often lasting all day or night. Going to a government hospital can mean losing a whole day's worth of work, and for an individual working for daily pay, this lost time is hard to bear. In emergency situations, Alice was forced to admit her daughter to the nearer and more convenient Universiti Hospital. The fees there were much higher and much more than Alice could possibly afford to pay. Fortunately, Alice was able to have some medical fees for treatment waived. She was also able to work with billing and finance departments at the hospital to set up a monthly installment plan but even such financial arrangement was difficult.

Alice, earning barely enough to make ends meet, does not have the resources to save for a down payment on a house. Without a permanent job or address it is impossible to apply for private bank loans in order to buy a house or start a business. Without official divorce papers, it is very difficult to gain government sponsored housing; renting a flat is the only alternative. This is expensive and as no capital is gained, it is a continuous drain on her financial resources.

The abuse Alice suffered affected much more than her personal safety and self-esteem. It changed the course of her life and that of her family. Her children grew up in poverty and they grew up without a father. It has been fifteen years since Alice left her home, and today her children are grown, but the legacy of abuse still haunts her. Her daughter and younger son have remained close to her, but her eldest son has grown distant. He resents his mother and the life he had as a child. He is angered by the breaking up of his family and has found severing ties with his family easier than living in a broken home. As Alice said, "if they suffer a lot as children when they get big they don't like the parents."

Alice's dream is to buy a house and to be comfortable in the years to come. When asked how she could do this she responded that she didn't know. She was unaware of government loan programmes and was unable to pay the deposits herself. She goes on renting an apartment. Alice has spent the last two decades raising her family alone. She succeeded in keeping her children with her, providing them with an education, and offering love and safety to those who depended on her. Alice has shown amazing strength and perseverance despite the many challenges she has faced. But her life, even now, is not easy. When asked what she thinks of the future she said, "I worry...when I get old who will care for me.

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Needs and Rights Identified

The specific respondent's needs, identified in this research, can be recognised as human rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as well as in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Malaysia, being part of the United Nations, is bound by the UDHR and the CEDAW, having ratified CEDAW 1995. Thus, the State should strive to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of women. 

1. Women have the right to the means to earn a living and to a reasonable income .

Identified Needs:
1.1 The respondents of the survey felt that if they were more educated, more proficient in Bahasa Malaysia and English, and had computer skills, they would have access to better paying jobs.

1.2 The respondents felt that a flexible job, such as a small business, could help them reconcile family and professional responsibilities. Access to start-up funds and training to run good business are thus needed.

1.3 The respondents expressed the need for affordable childcare centres nearer to their place of residence. It is essential for them to be able to leave their children in a secure environment when they go to work.

2. Women have the right to Social Security

Identified Need:
2.1 The Social Welfare Department was set up to insure that individuals in need, due to various circumstances, would still see their basic needs met and their development not compromised. Still, some respondents who asked for help did not receive any from the Social Welfare Department. There needs to be greater access to the services offered by the Social Welfare Department.

2.2 The respondents were not aware of all the services offered by the Social Welfare Department. Its services should be better publicized.

3. Women have the right to Access to Health Care

Identified Need:
3.1 Many of the respondents showed chronic medical problems. As illustrated in one of the case studies, going to a government hospital can take a lot of time and result in the loss of salary. For individuals and families with a low income, this is impossible. It is thus important to ensure greater access to affordable treatment for all illnesses, in the form of district clinics for example.

4. Women have the right to Leisure

Identified Need:
4.1 The respondents explained that they could rarely afford to take their children on outings. Recreational activities are nonetheless essential in child development and individual fulfillment. Thus, there should be greater access to recreational activities for the whole family, in the form of district community centres for example.

5. Women have the right to Legal Redress

Identified Need:
5.1 The respondents expressed the need for legal support in cases of divorce, custody, maintenance, domestic violence and harassment. As they cannot afford private lawyers, a "legal hotline" for women or more legal aid centres would help them get legal redress.

6. Women have the right to Personal Security

Identified Needs:
6.1 Many of the respondents were living in hiding from their abusive husbands at the time of the survey. Many of the respondents made police reports but did not see any action being taken against their aggressor. There is thus a need for the police officers to give better protection to all individuals, to conduct more thorough investigations into domestic violence cases and act without delay upon the findings.

6.2 There is a need for gender-sensitive police officers that render professional services.

7. Women have the right to adequate Housing

Identified Needs:
7.1 Many of the respondents live on a single low income and access to low-cost housing is needed for them to be able to fulfill their family's needs in food, clothing and schooling.

7.2 Rentals are expensive and many of the respondents have to live in squatter areas in often, poor sanitary conditions. It is shown that such poor conditions have a direct impact on health. There is thus, a need for reasonable standard of sanitation and facilities.

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