Here, we share with you two stories that speak to EMPOWER’s beginnings, one from Maria Chin Abdullah, and another from Thency Gunasekaran, who was a volunteer at the time.
Initially, we were not formed yet, that is not in the sense of being legally registered. When the tsunami happened in 2005, some of us personally actually went up to Kedah, to give help in Kota Kuala Muda, and that was when we got involved with the community. There was a lot of publicity at the time, asking people to go up and help, and that was the first time ever we had such a bad flood that killed so many people. We saw particularly how the women were discriminated when it came to compensation that the government was giving to the victims. As far as women’s needs and their economic survival were concerned, that was like a non-equation for compensation. So we brought out the issue in workshops, with the youth and with the community.
When we found out what the women had faced, we decided that we wanted to operate as an entity. We were offered funding to help and to do the workshops. So that was when the company, Pusat Janadaya, was formed. That was in 2005. Then later in 2008, we re-registered ourselves as a society.
When we worked with the women tsunami victims, we covered Langkawi, Penang and Kota Kuala Muda. Eventually, we worked more with the youth groups. We found that the youth groups in the areas affected by the tsunami not only lacked a gender perspective, but also lacked drive to push themselves in their studies and economically. We didn’t know anyone in the community, but we approached the people there and they were friendly enough. A lot of people had actually gone in to help—organisations and political parties, but eventually all of them left. We were the only ones left behind to continue with the workshops. We were funded by UNICEF and UNFPA at the time.
When we first arrived at Kota Kuala Muda, we were shocked. It is a fishing village and there were not many other types of economic activities other than fishing. There are some home industries but they were not very effective. So when the tsunami struck, a lot of them were left homeless. When we first started, we had several community meetings with the people there, with the Ketua Kampung and others. They were quite welcoming and they were quite happy when we stayed on to help out. We did not go in with clothes and money. We went in with our offer of skills and capacity-building and which not many groups did.
With the community, we first started with focus group discussions in Penang, Langkawi and Kota Kuala Muda, to just gather from them, other than their material needs, what other issues were they facing. Their economic survival was definitely one issue. Most of them lost their boats, but that loss was compensated. But the women who lost their pinggan mangkuk and utensils–because some of them try to earn a supplementary income by selling nasi lemak, roti canai and so on–those were not compensated. They also lost their jewellery and life savings. The women were not compensated for these losses and none of them were actually part of the decision-making. So during the focus group discussions, it was quite a struggle with the men to get them to actually look at what their children had lost, and to look at what their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers had lost. I think the focus group discussions in Penang were quite different. The women were very vocal. They were also primarily fishing communities. In Langkawi, the communities there engaged more with home-based industries. The women there were very organized. They visited the Home Ministry. Langkawi was also not as badly affected in that there were no deaths, I think. Some of the houses were destroyed, but the government did help them rebuild their homes.
At the time, we had with us my late husband, Yunus, myself, Thency and Alvin. We also had the Bangsar boys—the youth, the Reformasi group, they came to help. They were actually quite well-received by the young people because Black, Amin Iskandar, plays the guitar so that attracted them quite a bit. Among the Reformasi group, we actually got in artists, those who paint and draw and we got an expert to come in as well from Protect and Save the Children, to do some therapy with them, so that they could express themselves in art form. So there were a lot of paintings, a few of which you can still see in EMPOWER’s office. Those were left behind by some of the participants.
We did an analysis of the gender relations and we did another report on the youth. With the youth, we thought that we had to give them sex education, but we found that a lot of them already knew about condoms and other issues by the way they reacted to the session. We brought in Malaysian AIDS Council to teach them about safer sex. Further than that, about respect, why the youth need to go and study, their priorities in life and other related matters, nobody seemed to really care about the youth. Their parents were too occupied with their economic survival.
Before the set up of EMPOWER, we had the Women’s Development Collective (WDC). When WDC moved from Kajang, that’s when I did a few programmes with the colleges. That’s how I got to know Thency, Alvin and a whole group of them, maybe ten to fifteen young people. Then through Yunus, we got to know the other group of young people, so that’s how we just gathered together. We started off with a much bigger group but then sustaining the interest, going up and down to Kota Kuala Muda, it was very tiring. Because it’s an eight-hour drive to Langkawi. In total, it was 12 hours. We spent more than a year working with the communities with the intention that eventually we will phase out. It was just not sustainable to be there all the time. We felt that as long as we gave them the skills, they would be able to develop themselves because economically, they were quite well taken care of by the government. UMNO Wanita was very strong in response to the community’s needs in Kota Kuala Muda. That was the first time I could really see how they operated.
It was quite a natural progression from our work in Kota Kuala Muda to then focus on women’s political participation. Most of us wanted to focus on gender issues. Our experience showed that these women can be very vocal, but they are not even appointed as leaders in their communities. That I guess made some of us feel that we needed to really focus on women’s political participation.
We actually didn’t have any training on how to run the women’s political participation programme so we developed our own module, touching on CEDAW and the whole rights framework and linking it to women, depending on which communities we were working with. For example, with the students, we actually had some communities that we worked with, but they were very sporadic. It was like touch and go. They were in Klang and Kajang. So we decided to focus on a few and we identified key leaders. Then later on, Jana (Janarthani Arumugam, EMPOWER’s President for two terms, 2016 and 2017) came in and Jana did quite a lot in building up our work in Kuala Selangor. At the time, she was a councillor and she eventually joined EMPOWER when we became a society. When she joined us, she brought some of her contacts in Kuala Selangor and Hulu Selangor. With Klang and Kajang, it was mainly through my contacts. But eventually, we couldn’t cope with so many, so we dropped Kajang. So we were working with these communities. Then subsequently, in 2007, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) itself, particularly Fuziah, she was very interested in building up the political cadres within PKR, and I got her to think about working on women’s participation so that they could also get the women candidates in. We worked out a module with her and it was carried out mainly by myself and my late husband, Yunus. Sometimes Yock Lin and Thency would come in to help. Then from there, we got known by the political parties as being able to provide the gender perspective on political participation.
After 2008, we went back to the communities in Kuala Selangor, Hulu Selangor and Klang to start training the women leaders. That was when the elections in 2013 arrived, and we had already trained over 600 women and we also had that fund injection from USAID so that actually helped us to run more trainings on women’s political participation. 2013 showed our progress and achievements. I think two of them got in as MPs, three in the State Assemblies including one in Sarawak, and three as local councillors. We had extended our trainings to PKR, DAP and also to PAS. In fact, the first training that we did was cross-party, with UMNO, when Azalina brought in about ten women. We also had women participants from MIC and Gerakan. But after we joined BERSIH and became the secretariat, they cut off ties with us. Only women from MIC came for the second level workshop, but the rest did not. After that, we just focused on women from the opposition political parties.
The breakthrough was actually with PAS. Eventually, I think we did two to three trainings with PAS women. We were able to discuss very sensitive issues as well, about the concept of equality. Even with PKR and all, we had a big discussion of what we mean by equality, what we mean by LGBT issues. We also talked about religion but to a limited extent because our focus was on women’s political participation. With PAS, it was their openness to discuss about equality. So when they had their selected candidates, I gave one training to them. So that was the first time ever that PAS opened their doors to us. Our focus was more on women’s political participation because there were never enough women candidates despite the government saying that they wanted to achieve at least 30 per cent women’s representation in Parliament. I think it was DAP that was the first political party that managed to achieve 30 per cent of women’s representation in two general elections. In fact, in 2013, they had almost achieved 50 per cent women’s representation. The problem with the political parties is that they only train you in how you should run your elections and on the party manifesto, and nothing further than that. So we came in to give the gender perspective and to train the women. We expanded our work to include the Orang Asli women to see if it’s possible to get at least one of them to stand for elections, whether at DUN or Parliament level. The setback with the Orang Asli is the lack of education. They are very vocal, you have Fatima, Norsi, but when it comes to reading development papers, it’s a big challenge for them. So at least to have them as community leaders if not as councillors. There also needs to be a broadening and sharing of the leadership with others.