Women’s Centre for Change: Protecting and Supporting Victims of Gender-based Violence

By Karen Lai

June 2024 FEATURE
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ACHIEVING SOCIAL CHANGE is impossible through government intervention alone. The scale of contemporary social problems demands the engagement of multiple stakeholders. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), working separately from the government across a broad range of social and political issues, play a critical role as catalysts for transformation.

The Women’s Centre for Change (WCC), Penang is an NGO established in 1985 to address the serious issue of gender-based violence (GBV).

A global health problem, GBV is estimated to affect one out of three women in their lifetime. In Malaysia, its main manifestations are domestic violence, and child sexual abuse and exploitation. Over 5,000 domestic violence cases have been recorded annually in the country since 2015, with significant spikes during Covid-19. In around 75% of such cases, the victims are women. Similarly, nearly 7,000 cases of sexual offences (including online sexual violence) against children in Malaysia were reported as at July 2023, with most victims being young teenage girls.

GBV, with all its complexities, must be addressed at various levels, including its root cause: patriarchy and gender inequality in the family and society. Women and children are often more susceptible to multiple forms of marginalisation including poverty, family breakdowns, lack of access to education and language barriers, and to top it off, there is a lack of comprehensive, integrated and accessible support services for victims, including rights-based crisis counselling and court support. The latter is often caused by resource constraints within enforcement agencies which also tend to work in silos, a general absence of gender perspectives and sensitivity to the realities faced by women and girls, and the lack of comprehensive sexuality education for children and teenagers on bodily autonomy, self-confidence, respect and consent.

Then and Now

After over four decades of recognising and responding to all these challenges, WCC has developed from a local crisis intervention centre to an organisation with national-level impact and a broader focus on women and children’s rights.

In 1982, a group of individuals concerned that women in Penang lacked a place to get help if plagued by domestic violence decided to start a Women’s Crisis Centre. The centre was legally registered in 1985. True to its name at the time, WCC began by offering hotline and face-to-face counselling to women in crisis. Later, it went on to organise talks and workshops on women’s rights. In the 1990s, we realised that to prevent GBV, working with children and youth was also crucial. WCC developed sexual abuse prevention programmes for children, and for teenagers, programmes on healthy relationships and respect.

As our operations grew, we started collaborating with government hospitals to provide crisis counselling for domestic and sexual violence victims. This led to the need to lobby for legal reforms affecting women and children, together with other Malaysian women’s groups in a national coalition now known as the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG).

WCC changed its name to Women’s Centre for Change in 2002 to better reflect our widened focus on women’s and children’s rights. With increased recognition and funding from the Penang state government, WCC set up a second office in 2009 to serve Penang’s mainland.

Since 1985, WCC has supported over 170,000 women and children through our services, outreach and advocacy. The Covid-19 pandemic made us focus on developing online resources such as e-posters, online storybooks and videos, helping to raise awareness on GBV and reaching millions nationwide through social media.

Inclusive and Effective

Today, WCC’s vision has expanded into that of creating an inclusive society free from gender violence and discrimination, where women can actualise their full potential. Its mission is threefold: to eliminate violence against women and children, empower them, and promote gender equality and social justice. We work within three core areas which form a multi-pronged, interconnected strategy for tackling GBV:

(i) Services: WCC provides comprehensive, victim-centred counselling and court support for women and children experiencing GBV, most of whom are from lower income groups. We work closely with the police, hospitals, social welfare department and courts to ensure victims access justice. We have a strong partnership with the One Stop Crisis Centres (OSCCs) at all six government hospitals in Penang, where OSCC personnel refer victims of domestic and sexual violence to WCC for crisis intervention.

(ii) Outreach: WCC’s prevention programmes in schools educate children and teenagers against sexual abuse, working closely with teachers and educators, and with the support of the state education department. Our interactive programmes create a safe, supported space for children and teenagers to share their concerns openly, enabling us to adapt our interventions to their needs, including developing programmes on cyber safety.

(iii) Advocacy: WCC consistently advocates for legislative and policy reforms to protect the rights of women and children. Over the decades, we have lobbied for legislation on domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual offences against children and more. We continue to engage actively with lawmakers, the police, prosecutors, the judiciary and the media through training, dialogues, and through other platforms.

All services, outreach programmes and resources are available in Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese and Tamil. Some resources are also available in Kadazan, Iban and sign language.

As a non-profit, tax-exempt NGO, WCC is entirely dependent on donations to fund our work. In 2017, we set up a social enterprise called the WCC Value Shop, where pre-loved clothing, accessories and household items donated by the public are sold, and proceeds are channelled to our work. After our core funding ended in 2018, we have constantly applied for grants and increased our fundraising efforts, including smart partnerships with foreign embassies, high commissions and the private sector. Without multi-year core funding, it will be difficult for our operations to remain sustainable.

If you’d like to support WCC, head over to https://www.wccpenang.org/donate/.

Karen Lai

is the Programme Director of the Women’s Centre for Change (www.wccpenang.org), an NGO in Penang dedicated to ending violence against women and children. Karen practised law for seven years, and has advocated for gender equality and social justice for nearly two decades.