The WAO Refuge - You Can\'t Beat A Woman

Posted on 15 July 2002

The WAO Refuge: You Can't Beat A Woman 

A paper presented at the Asia Regional Workshop on
Strengthening Partnerships for Eliminating Gender-Based Violence
Organised by the Government of Malaysia,
the Commonwealth Secretariat and
the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

20 -22 May 2002 in Kuala Lumpur


WAO Statistical Highlight in 2001
Women-Centered, Empowerment and the F word - Feminists
How Does This Translate to Our Daily Work?
Beyond Services - social workers turn activists
A Multi-agency Approach
The Human Rights of Women
Lessons learnt, Threats recognized
Eliminating Discrimination



In August 1982, an article appeared in a leading English Daily about a Refuge, which offered shelter and counselling for battered women and their children. On a Saturday morning in September 1982, a call came, " She has left her husband with her children; could she stay for awhile?" This caller and her 2 children were our first residents.

WAO opened Malaysia's first refuge amidst speculation and perhaps hopeful belief that women will not leave their homes and there weren't many instances of wife beating, just the occasional tiffs between husband and wife.

20 years later we are still here providing shelter annually to an average of 100 women and 145 children, telephone counselling to over 1,000 women and face-to-face counselling to 50 women. Besides these services, we have support services of a Child Care Center which opened in 1991 and are presently committed to begin providing services to rape survivors by setting up the first Rape Hotline in the country.

There are 14 states in Malaysia. In Selangor where WAO is situated there are 2 Homes which shelters women, including domestic violence survivors run by the NCWO/ YWCA of Klang and the HELP Home run by a church. The All Women Action Society of Malaysia (AWAM) also provides telephone counselling and legal aid services. In the state of Negeri Sembilan, a new Refuge recently opened called the Shelter Home for Abused Women and Children. Up north in the state of Penang, the Women Crisis Centre has Refuge and telephone counselling services.

In East Malaysia, the Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS) provides telephone counselling in the city of Kuching and in Sabah, the Sabah Women Action Resource Group (SAWO) does the same in Kota Kinabalu.

There are also designated government shelters under the Welfare Department, Ministry Of National Unity and Social Development that accommodate women. These government shelters are not exclusively for domestic violence survivors.


WAO is primarily funded by public donations ranging from Foundations, banks, women's associations, corporations, overseas aid agencies and individuals. Currently we have budget of RM 50,000 (approx. US$13, 000) per month that takes care of the Refuge and Child Care operational costs, 17 full time staff to provide counselling services and conduct the advocacy and public education work, i.e. project work. In 2001, we received project funding (4.16 % of the annual budget) from the Ministry of Women and Family Development and for operational costs, another 3.8 % of our annual budget is funded by the Welfare Department, Ministry of National Unity and Social Development.

Fundraising is an ongoing task.

A Look at WAO: the Statistics 1982 - 2001


Face-to Face


REFUGE 115 women were given shelter in 2001
FACE-TO-FACE 95 sessions of Face-to-face counselling in 2001
TELEPHONE COUNSELLING 1063 calls in 2001

A client's profile at the Refuge (115 women in 2001 )

  • In general, a woman will come to seek shelter at WAO because she has been the victim of a violent act (78%).
  • She experiences domestic violence (62%) and the perpetrator is the husband (90%).
  • She is Malaysian (76%), in her 20s or 30s ( 77%), and comes from the state of Selangor (including Kuala Lumpur - 88%).
  • She would have received primary level education 23% , completed her secondary education( 56%) and hold a diploma or degree including post graduate (13%).
  • She may not have any formal education ( 8%).
  • She may not be working (45%) either, because she is a homemaker or was unable to find work.
  • She will have usually learned about us through another NGO (29%) or she will come to the shelter after talking on the phone with one of our social workers in a telephone counselling session (17%). She has called us because she has heard of us through the media (32% - telephone counselling statistics).
  • Even though she would have attempted to leave the abusive relationship more than once (62%), when she arrives at our shelter, it is usually her first visit with us (84%).
  • In general, she will have suffered three kinds of abuse: physical (90%), psychological (89%) as well as financial (59%).
  • The abuse will have started in the first year of her relationship with the abuser (61%) and usually she will have endured abuses at least once a week (59%) for at least one year and up to ten years (63%).
  • When she leaves WAO after a stay of probably less than a month (55%), it is usually to live independently (69%); but if she decides to go back to live with the abuser (22%), it is mainly because she wants to give him another chance (93%).

While this is a general profile, we have to keep in mind that women are coming to us from all over Malaysia and even other countries; they may be up to their fifth visit at our Refuge, they may stay with us for more than three months; and they may have been in an abusive situation
for more than 20 years.

Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW)

  • In 2001, twelve of the women who came for shelter were Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW) victims of abuse.
  • All these workers came from Indonesia.
  • Most were referred to WAO by the police or were made aware of WAO by NGOs or hospitals.
  • Most of the FDWs (7 out of 12) were abused by their female employer, whereas other women were abused by men.
  • At the end of the year, half of them had gone back to Indonesia, 6 were still at WAO and one had gone back to her agent.

Face-to-face (95 sessions of Face-to-face counselling in 2001)

  • 65% of the women came for Face-to-face counselling because of domestic violence.
  • The abuse was mostly psychological (79%) and physical (74%), and the abuser was generally the husband (89%).
  • When needed, we also helped the women going through the process of getting an Interim Protection Orders against their abuser (21%), which meant accompanying the women to the police office, the welfare office and the court. Our law reform officers were also involved in this task.

Telephone Counselling (1063 calls in 2001)

  • More than half of the calls (56%) we received were related to domestic violence or other forms of violence against women.
  • An important proportion of the calls were related to other problems (43%) such as going through a divorce (22%), husband having another woman in his life (22%), relationship problems with a husband or a boyfriend (19%), or maintenance and child custody issues (19%).
  • Even though most callers requested counselling (75%), half of them also requested legal information (51%). When our social workers and law reform officers could not answer their questions, the callers were then referred to other NGOs, more specialized in these matters.

Women-Centered, Empowerment and the F word - Feminists

From the start, WAO pioneer volunteers articulated in words and actions a fundamental premise that No None Deserves to be Battered and violence is always unacceptable and is never justified.

"The fundamental belief of WAO is that no one deserves to be battered. We uphold the self-dignity of every human being in our society, both men and women.

The WAO does not make a priori judgments that it is either men or women who are solely responsible for the battering of women in our society. Instead, WAO encourages the opportunity for dialogue between the parties involved in the search for a just solution. However, WAO, by rendering its services to battered women and children, deliberately chooses to focus on the battered women rather than the men attackers. This is because WAO believes that being the disadvantaged party, battered women desperately need immediate protection from any further physical assault.

In addition WAO considers it only fair that battered women are given access to the necessary advocacy services, information and support required for a final solution of the problem.

It must not be construed that WAO in offering temporary protection, serves only to offer charity or alms to battered women in their moment of crisis. WAO functions on the belief that every human being, man and woman, should have control over the conditions which shape his or her life. Through the services of temporary accommodation, information and support WAO hopes to provide some of the means which help battered women to help themselves and their families towards a final solution.

It is from this philosophy of self-dignity and self-determination that the two main principles underlying the Women's Shelter (Refuge) are drawn: 1) self help and 2) an open door policy.

By self-help we mean that families staying in the refuge are encouraged to take an active part in the day-to-day running of the Refuge. All facilities are shared and families are expected to live in an atmosphere of co-operation. The Refuge does not have wardens. We believe all residents can take responsibility for what happens in the house. Women in the Refuge can themselves make arrangements to admit other battered women into the Refuge during the day or night. There are regular meetings for women living in the Center and volunteers to discuss policy and problems. In a word, women are encouraged to share their experiences so as to give each other support.

The WAO's open-door policy means quite simply that no woman is turned away from the shelter in a time of crisis and emergency. Even if the Refuge is full and a call comes in the middle of the night, the woman (and children) concerned will be taken in, if only for that night. Alternative arrangements will be made the next day and any necessary information and support will be given to her.

How does this translate to our daily work?

Through the years, we have made a conscious effort not to adopt a welfare or charity approach in our work and the relationship between client and worker is seen as an egalitarian one. For example, we refer to our clients as "residents" not "inmates". We have instituted House meetings where residents plan activities, and at the same time air grievances within the Refuge. Residents are consulted when formulating rules and guidelines in the running of the Refuge and encouraged to be involved in WAO activities like jumble sales, public education, press conferences, walkathons etc.

It is not always easy, as staff and volunteers can slip into dictating instructions to women and children and treating women and children as helpless victims. To create checks and balances, besides weekly House meetings among residents and staff, monthly House Group meetings between staff and volunteers are a part of the system to discuss the progress and processes of "case management ".

Although not all staff and volunteers will define themselves as feminists, we realise that we are involved in this work not because we want to just help but because we are also part of the same struggle that women as a gender face in our personal and professional lives.

If you have come
to help me
you are wasting your time.
if you have come
your liberation
is bound up with mine
then let us work

Our work for and with battered women focuses on empowerment of survivors of VAW based on the following principles:

  • Believing in and accepting the client's story.
  • Addressing her concerns and providing options from which she can choose.
  • Working with a woman at her own pace in assessing and changing her situation.
  • Recognising a woman's talents, skills and experience and to remind her that she is a survivor.
  • Recognising that women can have control over their lives.
  • Confidentiality is assured, no information to be given to anyone outside the agency without her informed and expressed consent.
  • Treating all women with respect and dignity regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, age, class, religion, sexual orientation.
  • Non - judgmental approach.
  • Recognising the children's need for safety and a loving environment free from violence.
  • Recognising that WAO is not in a neutral position to provide counselling to batterers but can direct them to other service providers.

We believe that:

  • Women and children have a right to be safe and it is the obligation of the state to render full protection to battered women;
  • Domestic violence is an abuse of power and is primarily directed towards women by men, and is matter of public concern and actions;
  • Domestic violence is a crime and should be reflected in legal sanctions;
  • Perpetrators must be held accountable;
  • Survivors must be involved and consulted in creating effective responses.

Beyond Services - Social Workers Turn Activists

Women and their children who sought shelter did feel safer and the ongoing support and counselling from staff and among the residents themselves were critical in the process of empowerment. The support systems among the residents within the Refuge, are an important dynamic. There is nothing more powerful and political than a " fist in the face followed by a little chat with 10 other women with black eyes" claimed one resident turned activist. Sharing of common experiences can be both healing and empowering.

In providing critical services we soon learnt that the work is beyond providing shelter and counselling. Through the experiences of the women, making that first call to ask for help is the start of more challenges as social workers and residents cleared their way through a maze of institutions and systems that were largely unsympathetic and unresponsive to survivors of domestic violence. At the crux were layers of discrimination against women both in the law and the culture of the law accompanied by prejudices against women who leave their violent homes.

It became incumbent on us as women's organisation to begin challenging institutional practices that prevented women from accessing her full spectrum of her rights and needs.

Paramount on the list was protection and one of the first tasks was to lobby for a Domestic Violence Act. Women's groups joined forces to draft and lobby for its enactment in 1985 and in 1994 the Malaysian Parliament passed the Domestic Violence Act.

In passing this Act there was an attitudinal shift by agencies that men who beat their wives can no longer expect to be immune from social sanction, a recognition that domestic violence is a crime, that women have a right to a protection order against the perpetrators and counselling for both parties upon request.

The success of the lobby is largely due to political will, the women's movement and the partnership with the media. The women's groups strategically formed a joint coalition called the Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women, popularly known as JAG.

JAG was first formed in 1985 to review and advocate for law and policy reform on Violence Against Women and in the ensuing years the coalition group that comprises 5 - 20 women's organisations at any one time are addressing legislative and policy changes to Domestic Violence, Rape, Sexual Harassment, Child Sexual Abuse and Foreign Domestic Worker Abuse.

A Multi-agency Approach

Recognising that Refuge and Counselling Services are not isolated without parallel support systems,
which we consider critical services too, it is essential to institute a multi- agency approach. When a woman seeks shelter her concerns and needs are multi-faceted.

The Human Rights of Women

We acknowledge that several strategies are in place in Malaysia and we are poised to address the challenges- we have a vibrant women's' movement, an energetic and enthusiastic Ministry of Women and Family Development, Shelter and Counselling services, the law, the One Stop Crisis Centers at hospitals and Legal Aid Services. Media is a ready partner to advocate for reform. However, there must be constant vigilance, monitoring, tracking and coordination among all agencies and WAO's Refuge and Counselling Services is one small but crucial part in the whole system.

Lessons learnt, Threats recognized

As we enter the 20th year of our services and advocacy, we have many stories both good and bad but even the bad ones were learning experiences:


  • Safety of women and children are of utmost importance.
  • The refuge and telephone counselling services must be woman centered / gender sensitive.
  • Documentation and monitoring is an essential in advocacy work.
  • The importance of coordinated response, i.e. multi-agency approach.
  • Media can be our allies.
  • Critical engagement with government agencies.
  • Capacity building and training is essential for both NGO and government agencies.
  • Work with men to stop VAW.


  • Burnout of social workers and activists.
  • Lack of funds for core services.
  • Lack of gender sensitive training for all agencies.
  • Trivialization of women's issues.
  • Backlash - emerging extremists attitudes towards women's equality.

Eliminating Discrimination

In the early years, WAO as a service provider, was merely reactive and not proactive. We responded to women's needs, thus the lobby for safety and protective laws, housing and medical services. However, our experience in these 20 years have made us recognize that we need to address the underlying entrenched institutional beliefs that allow women to be beaten.

WAO has articulated her vision and mission:

  • To create a society to uphold the principles of gender equality where all women enjoy their human rights in every sphere;
  • To promote and create the respect, protection and fulfillment of equal rights for women and to work towards the elimination of discrimination against women, in particular the elimination of violence against women.

To this end our coalition work with women's groups includes the Women's Agenda for Change, which is a platform for action covering 11 issues, the successful lobby to amend the Federal Constitution to include gender as a prohibitive ground for discrimination, our specific work with the Woman's Convention, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW) to monitor and facilitate the fulfillment of the Malaysian government's obligation to women's equality.


The secrecy that once surrounded domestic violence is breaking down and we must put on record our respect for the many women and children who have come forward with courage to break the cycle of violence.

It is thus our responsibility for both NGO and government agencies that we work diligently so that community interventions are better coordinated and interlocked and at the core of services must be the best interests of the women and her children who do not deserve to be beaten.

Ivy Josiah
Executive Director
Women's Aid Organisation

«  Back