There’s hope for women who are experiencing domestic violence — and it’s just a phone call away.

A WOMAN being hit and subjugated to violence seems to have taken a worrying trend of new “normalcy” in recent times. We’ve read too many news reports, heard too many commentaries and what’s even more worrying — in this nation — we’ve heard too many excuses trying to explain away the problem.

This is the sobering fact: one in three women and girls experience violence in their lifetime. That’s just one too many.

It happens in every country and society. It happens at home, in schools, on the streets, at work, on the Internet and in refugee camps. It happens during war, and even in the absence of war. The rallying cry of the #MeToo campaign running across glittering Hollywood and making its way across the globe tells us that the domina¬tion of women and abuse (both physical and psychological) are global blights.

Between 2014 and 2017, a total of 15,617 cases of domestic violence were reported in Malaysia. “Last year alone, we had over 5,700 cases reported,” says Tan Heang- Lee, communications officer from the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO).

It’s alarming but as she notes, it also means that more women are aware of their rights, what constitutes domestic violence and that they can seek help, protection as well as legal redress for the situation that they’re in.

“More women are choosing to break the silence,” she says.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, nearly 2.5 million cases of sexual violence were reported globally in 2014, with many countries reporting more than 100 instances of rape or sexual assault per 100,000 people. Domestic violence is often defined in varied and broad terms depending on the country.

“The Women’s Aid Organisation has been around since 1982 and we support survivors of violence against women,” explains Tan, adding: “A huge component of the work we do involve supporting and helping women who are caught in this situation.”

With startling statistics that shows an increased number of calls to aid organisations such as WAO, there’s a growing demographic of women who have experienced violence of some form. In the US, one in four women will experience domestic violence at the hands of their part¬ner during their lifetime.

A majority of the women who come to WAO seeking shelter for themselves and their children have had to give up their jobs or are unemployed.

HELPLESS AND ALONE

While women, men, boys and girls can be victims of domestic violence, women and girls are disproportionally affected.

Common forms of violence in the home are perpetrated by males who are in positions of trust, intimacy and power over the female partner, like husbands, boyfriends, fathers, father-in-laws, stepfathers and stepmothers, uncles, among others.

Charlene Murray, case manager of the team of social workers who work to assist women trapped in some form of violence says: “Aside from the physical abuse, most survivors are also financially abused, with income taken away from them. It’s the financial insecurity — no job, no cash, no credit — that can make it very difficult for victims to leave their abusers for good.”

It’s a huge step for women to seek help, they acknowledge. “A majority of the women who come to us are unemployed.

Some have had to give up their jobs, some are homemakers and there are those who are unemployed because they’ve been in this cycle of abuse for a long time,” explains Murray. “We’re here to help,” chips in Tan.

It’s a little too much to take for me. As they relate to me some cases where serious acts of violence have been perpetrated to the extent that the injuries are severe, like stabbings and having their jaws broken, I almost feel physically ill. “It keeps me awake at nights sometimes,” admits Murray.

We’re quiet and lost in our thoughts for a brief moment in that little room at the WAO’s headquarters. It’s inconceivable that women should have to go through such terrifying and emotional situations and more often than not, they feel isolated, depressed and afraid. And truth be told, more than a little terrified of having to start life all over again, by themselves.

“There’s a common misconception that these women are weak, emotionally fragile and bad decision makers. In truth, they’re resilient, resourceful and talented,” says Tan, adding: “What WAO does is to provide the necessary services for them to break away from the cycle of abuse, be safe and have a chance at starting life all over again, free from abuse and violence.”

PHONE CALL AWAY

The genesis of WAO was the result of the late Tun Tan Siew Sin’s contribution to establish a shelter for battered women and their children back in 1979.

After nine months of laying the groundwork and putting together a core group of volunteers who worked towards formulating the operating principles of self-help and self-empowerment for battered women who turned to the centre for help, the centre was born.

Historically, a call one early Saturday morning in 1982 came in: “She has left her husband with her two children. Could she stay for a while?” This woman and her two children became WAO’s first residents.

Being a ‘phone-call away’ remains very much of the centre’s DNA. Back in 2014, WAO introduced TINA, a new SMS helpline to reach out to survivors of domestic violence and women in crisis.

TINA, an acronym for Think I Need Aid, is an extension of WAO’s service to reach out to those trapped in the vicious cycle of abuse.

“It helps provide a veil of anonymity for those who aren’t ready to make hard decisions yet. TINA has taken on the role of the comforting person that victim-survivors can turn to without having to disclose too much or make decisions that they’re unable to do at the present moment in their lives,” says Tan.

“If you ask anyone who’s called the hotline before, you’ll probably hear how TINA has been that comforting presence or ‘friend’. There are those who call and ask to speak to TINA directly,” adds Murray, smiling. “We don’t tell them that our Crisis Support Officers are all ‘TINAs’.”

For many women, reaching out to the Centre is a huge step that takes a lot of courage. “I often tell my support team that it’s that one call or that one message that makes or breaks that decision. If we don’t respond appropriately, if we don’t give them that confidence that they can break out of this vicious cycle and reassure them that we’ll be there to support them through that journey, chances are someone who has been trying to break free of violence might decide not to call WAO anymore,” says Murray, her voice low.

The organisation provides a temporary refuge for women and children who have been caught in abuse. “We do social work, assist women to access services from relevant government agencies and NGOs,” says Tan.

“For instance, a domestic violence survivor who comes in may need to make a police report, get a medical examination done, and may need to contact the welfare department. We hold their hands, help them navigate through all these different agencies to obtain these services and advocate on their behalf when there are roadblocks preventing them from getting the necessary help.” A pause and she adds: “We just want to help rebuild their lives.”

Tan Heang-Lee (left) and Charlene Murray.

A FRIEND IN NEED

For Tan and Murray, it has been gratifying to see how scores of women have learnt to make that one decision to break the vicious cycle of abuse.

“The common theme with all these women is that they’re more capable than they think,” says Tan. “All we really do is say, ‘we believe in you, you can do this and we’re here to support you’. That little bit of encouragement has a tremendous impact.”

At a recent volunteer recruitment for Crisis Support Officers, Murray relates how most, if not all participants, have encountered gender-based violence at some point in their lives. “These recruits are just normal working women like you and I,” she adds.

One particularly touching moment was when one of the recruits admitted that she’d called the WAO hotline during the time she was trapped in an abusive relationship.

“Five years ago, she made that one phone call to WAO, and she chose to leave that relationship because of that phone call. She didn’t require further assistance but the encouragement and support she got gave her the confidence to end that relationship,” relates Murray.

There was also another person who shared that long ago, she too made a call to a crisis centre.

“She didn’t feel as though she received that support and she continued to remain in that abusive situation for another seven to eight years,” she adds soberly. “This is why we’re continuously trying to improve our service to ensure that anyone who calls for help will be treated with sensitivity and care.” Adding emphatically, she says: “It’s that first phone call that’s so important.”

Women’s rights organisations like WAO are important catalysts in interventions to promote greater gender equality, realise women’s rights and end violence against women and girls.

“WAO is committed towards making real and effective changes, and we play an important role in shaping services to protect and support survivors,” says Tan.

She points out that WAO has been working to change public policies and shift mindsets about women’s rights. “We see violence against women as really a manifestation of gender inequality. So we’re working to address not just violence against women, but more broadly — women’s rights and gender equality.”

She shares that the Domestic Violence Act amended in 2017, which allowed women to seek for emergency and immediate protection against perpetrators, was one of the fruits of WAO and other women NGOs advocacy efforts.

Still, it takes just a phone call to change a beleaguered woman’s life. “The cycle of violence is a scary thing to break free of,” admits Murray, adding: “But rest assured, WAO is always there. We’re just an SMS or a call away.”

For the rest of us, this also means that we’ve got to break the silence and stop the excuses. Let’s recognise it for what it truly represents — crimes against women that need to be stopped.

[email protected]

GETTING HELP FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

WAO HOTLINE 03-7956 3488 (Mon to Sat, 9am to 5pm. Tues, WED AND FRI extended hours from 7pm to 10pm)

WHATSAPP/SMS TINA 018-988 8058 (24 hours)

IN MALAYSIA, THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ACT 1994 (ACT 521) DEFINES THE ACT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AS FOLLOWS:

1. Wilfully or knowingly placing or attempting to place the victim in fear of physical injury.

2. Causing physical injury to the victim by such act, which is known or ought to have been known would result in physical injury;

3. Compelling the victim by force or threatening to engage in any conduct or act, sexual or otherwise, from which the victim has a right to abstain;

4. Confining or detaining the victim against the victim’s will;

5. Causing mischief or destruction or damage to property with intent to cause or knowing that it’s likely to cause distress or annoyance to the victim;

6. Causing psychological abuse which includes emotional injury to the victim;

7. Causing the victim to suffer delusions by using any intoxicating substance or any other substance without the victim’s consent or if the consent is given, the consent is unlawfully obtained;

or

8. In the case where the victim is a child, causing the victim to suffer delusions by using any intoxicating substance or any other substance.