We have come a long way as women. With access to education, the freedom to build our careers, enjoy a bustling social life and create the life we dream, some would say we have it good.
Yet, it is important to know that it wasn’t always this way.
Without the women who have fought for our rights, we would not be where we are.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 each year, we look to the women who have and who continue to drive change in helping women reach their full potential. Today, we highlight 6 (of many) Malaysian women who we would like to thank for their contributions to women’s rights:
1. Ivy Josiah
As one of the pioneer volunteers and former president and executive director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Josiah has been actively involved in the fight for women’s rights.
Established in 1982, WAO was one of the first organisations in Malaysia dedicated to helping women and children faced with violence. Josiah grew the organisation from a team of five to 20 employees, and played a key role in promoting WAO’s protection services, advocating for law and policy reforms and in educating the public on violence against women. She was also a member of the National Taskforce investigating sexual abuse allegations of indigenous women in Sarawak.
She believes in fighting for the rights of others, having shared that she gets “very angry when there is injustice”, which drives her to take a stand and act.
Today, she is no longer employed by WAO but continues to volunteer for the organisation, while balancing being in the committee of HAKAM (National Human Rights Society), PROHAM (The Society for the Promotion of Human Rights), and Bersih.
2. YBhg. Dato’ Ramani Gurusamy
As deputy president of the National Council of Women’s Organisation (NCWO), Ramani is a veteran fighter for women’s rights and development in Malaysia.
With focus on professional, social and community work to promote women empowerment, Ramani fought for giving women equal pay, medical, housing and other benefits in the 1960s.
She has been in the NCWO for more than 20 years now and has contributed in forming its many programmes, including the National Policy on Women and Action Plan.
She stresses the importance of young women to be involved in driving further progress in women’s rights. She told The Star:
“We need young, fresh blood in the women’s movement. We need your excitement, your passion and your commitment. So, prepare yourself to get into the movement. Get the leadership skills you need, and you probably already have them. Get into an organisation. Now, with the Internet, you can see what an organisation is all about. See what are the issues that interest you and get involved. We need you.”
3. Toh Puan Umasundari Sambanthan
You may know her as the wife of the late Tun V.T. Sambanthan, but Toh Puan herself is well known as an activist and social worker, raising the status of women, especially in rural areas.
A woman who values the power of education, she graduated with First Class Honors from the University of Madras, where she majored in Chemistry. She then continued her Master’s Degree at the Presidency College, Chennai.
In the 1950s, she was actively involved in fighting for women’s rights, and was involved in spreading awareness of the benefits of Malayan citizenship to rural women. She was also one of the founders and formal president of the NCWO and today, she continues to hold the position as general-secretary of the Sri Ramakrishna Sarada Society, which she co-founded in 1960.
4. Shamsiah Fakeh
Not many have heard of Shamsiah Fakeh. An independence fighter and feminist of the 1950’s, she was the leader of Malaysia's first nationalist women organization, the infamous Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS) and also a prominent Malay leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM).
Having fought persistently right into the jungles of Malaya, she has survived poverty, war and imprisonment. In her autobiography Memoir Shamsiah Fakeh: Dari AWAS Ke Rejimen Ke-10, Shamsiah writes: “I was merely a woman fighting the British for my country’s independence and the emancipation of women.”
5. Low Ngai Yuen
A mother of four young children, a successful entrepreneur and an advocate for women empowerment, one might think, “Where does she find the time?”
As with the other women on this list, she knows the difference women can make in this world, if only given the opportunity. From 3R TV to film direction and production, and to being the Marketing and Communications Director of the Malaysia and Singapore arm of Carrefour S.A, Low has done much to show that women can and should have the courage to achieve their goals and define their happiness.
Today, she is the president of Kakiseni, a not-for-profit performing arts platform, as well as the president and founder of WOMEN:girls, an organisation with a vision to help women realise their potential as role models and inspire girls to achieve their dreams.
When asked whether women can have it all, Low shares that one should always define ‘all’ in her own way and not in the expectation of others.
And her motto? Do what is right, not what is easy.
6. Maria Chin Abdullah
Familiar to many, Maria is a leading figure in the Bersih movements.
As a feminist and a human rights activist, Maria is a lawyer by profession and a prominent voice for women’s rights in Malaysia. She has been a key fighter for Malaysian women's rights for three decades, helping set up AWAM in 1985 and co-founding Empower, a non-governmental organisation that encourages women and young people to participate in politics and to campaign for civil liberties.
We have come a long way as women, but we are not there yet.
Whether it is calling out on unfair treatment, volunteering your time at an NGO, donating to help a young girl go to school, it is now up to us.
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