Women's Aid Organisation executive director Sumitra Visvanathan says if you think what you're doing is making an impact on the community, it gives you momentum. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, April 12, 2015.Fighting for the rights of the oppressed has always been close to Sumitra Visvanathan's heart as she moves from working with refugees to protection of women and children in the Women's Aid Organisation (WAO).
The 47-year-old law graduate who was recently appointed the new executive director for WAO has 23 years of experience with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
"So, the issue of gender and the protection of women are not unknown to me. I have just done it in a different context, in a refugee context.
"When I heard about this job, and there was a call for this, I immediately applied for it. I was delighted when I was offered the job," she added.
Four months on the job, she told The Malaysian Insider recently that one of the challenges she faced early on was the fact that she now had to have a more "public profile" than when she was in the UNHCR.
"It was different in the UNHCR because although I worked closely with refugees, there was never a need for me to engage with the press or put myself out there in the open. In fact, I used to take my tag off when I see the media so that they wouldn't know I was a humanitarian worker.
"But because a big part of what WAO does is advocacy, I need to develop a public profile for WAO and I realise that WAO's standing in the community is very closely linked to its staff. It is something I am working on," she said with a laugh.
Her resume of her experience at UNHCR is nothing short of impressive, with postings to war-torn countries like Libya, Iraq and Pakistan, something that she attributes to her law background, particularly in her knowledge of refugee law.
"In the context of protecting refugees, gender is extremely important and is something that is referred to as mainstream in gender issues," she said.
"And so in a refugee camp, the protection of women is of particular importance. Refugee women face specific forms of harm... like in conflicts, there is always sexual violence, for instance.
"That needs to be recognised and those have faced this in the past need to have access to specialised services to help them heal from that."
Despite the few hiccups in trying to adjust to her new role, Sumitra finds herself excited and eager to show what she is capable of.
"I benefited from a long handover period which is really good, so I could observe, understand and see the way things were being done.
"One of the first things I did when I took over was to do an evaluation of where we are to understand fully what really are the needs of women survivors of domestic violence in Malaysia and their children… and to see how we can respond to the massive needs out there with the resources we have.
“So it is basically trying to make each ringgit stretch as much as we can stretch it. That is really what I am trying to focus on."
One of the main efforts WAO will be embarking on under Sumitra's helm it to tap on its expertise in developing a tool kit for building and running shelters that will be given to state authorities needing guidance in the area.
"There are very few shelters around and there is a need for more. So we want to develop a kit to help other groups set up shelters."
She speaks fondly about her predecessor, Ivy Josiah, one of the pioneers of WAO and whose name is synonymous with the civil society group.
"No, it is not intimidating. It is actually empowering," she said of having to fill the big shoes that Josiah left.
"I'm very privileged to take on a job and a role that has been so carefully nurtured over so many years by the organisation and by people like Ivy, my predecessor, and a whole group of dedicated, highly skilled volunteers who have been on our executive committee for many years."
Sumitra, the daughter of a headmaster, grew up in Port Dickson and Penang, as her family moved around a bit because of her father's job.
"Then I did my Form 5 in Sri Aman Secondary School and went on to do my A-Levels in Sunway College."
Following that, she left for the United Kingdom to read law at Leicester University, where she stayed on for an extra year upon graduation because of commitments.
While waiting to start on the Certificate of Legal Practice, Sumitra made a life-altering decision to apply for an internship with the UNHCR.
"I studied refugee law in university and I was really interested in refugee issues, I wrote to the UNHCR office in Malaysia. I was 23 then.
"But since they were really short-staffed at that time and they were in need of people with knowledge of refugee law, they offered me a job instead.”
Sumitra found herself in Indonesia after she accepted the job, where she lived and worked at the Pulau Galang refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people.
"Then I found myself in a quandary. What do I do now? Do I continue on with UNHCR or do I go ahead with my earlier plan to do y CLP and become a lawyer?
"My parents wanted me to finish my education and their message was to finish studying and then do what you want to do later," she said.
However, after much thought, Sumitra decided that working with refugees was what she wanted to do, telling herself that such an opportunity was hard to come by.
The young Sumitra was fortunate to be one of the few skilled in her field in the UNHCR at that time and was presented with many opportunities to travel and work in different countries.
"After Indonesia, I was transferred to Hong Kong, where I realised that this was the path I wanted to take in life... that I really wanted to continue working with refugees for the UN.”
Taking several breaks during her long stint in Hong Kong, which she described as "self-care approaches" because of the high stress level at work, she even tried being a journalist for a short time.
“One of the drawbacks of being in the frontline as a humanitarian aid worker is this phenomenon called burnout. It tires you out emotionally," she said.
"But the pull was too strong. At some point they offered me my old job so I took it and went back to Hong Kong."
After other stints in Peshawar, Pakistan, Libya, Switzerland, Iraq, and again in Indonesia, Sumitra was ready to come home for good.
“I was very lucky to get that opportunity to travel, to work with refugees. It was a powerful experience."
Now, Sumitra counts herself lucky for being able to work with a host of successful professionals in the field of protecting women.
"I am always in awe of these women because they are successful professionals in their own right, in their respective fields and at the same time, their commitment to WAO is so strong that they give the support and time that running an organisation like this requires.
"I am really blessed to be surrounded by such strong, formidable women. And it is a very nurturing environment. So I am very, very lucky."
When asked if she missed the excitement and the travelling of her previous job, Sumitra said: "When you have a mission and you believe in what you are doing, it doesn't matter if it is in the commercial sector or the NGO sector.
"If you think what you're doing is making an impact and is useful to your community, it pushes you, gives you momentum.” – April 12, 2015.
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