Traumatic experiences, violence and pervasive persecutions have driven millions of women out of their homes, forcing them to leave their country and go to unwelcome lands, where there is little or no protection. From the moment they flee their countries, the violence and persecution continue until they reach their destination. Upon arrival in Malaysia, their dreams are dashed even further. They are stripped of their rights as a woman, as a mother and as a worker. They suffer in silence.
Often labelled as illegal, refugee women encounter oppression, imprisonment and harassment. They are subjected to a wide range of human rights violations. They have no access to legal protection or the right to work. Their children have no access to education, as enshrined in the Constitution and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Malaysia has also ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which guarantees equal rights and treatment to refugee women. The government has not signed nor ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Tenaganita has documented countless reports of abuses and exploitation. With no legal protection, these refugee women are at high risk of gender-based violence, harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention and extortion. Women and young girls are raped and robbed of their innocence. These women are silenced by fear, for their status deprives them of access to legal redress. Refugee women share and bear the burden of supporting their families, most times in the absence of their husbands. As the need for survival obligates them to find incomes, they are forced to work in unregulated and informal sectors of the economy, known as 3D jobs (dangerous, demanding and dirty).
Without legal documentation and identity, the fate of refugee women workers is often at the mercy of their employers, who withhold salaries, sexually harass and exploit them. If the women were to report these crimes, they would be at risk of arrest, detention and deportation. Refugee communities have been in Malaysia for almost four decades. Without access to education, the level of illiteracy among refugee women and young girls is increasing.
Tenaganita sees the need to start a project where their skills and capacities can be boosted through training and livelihood projects to support their families. A few Myanmar refugee women groups in Malaysia have organised themselves by creating micro enterprises to market their handicraft and items. In 2010, Tenaganita, along with a few Myanmar refugee women leaders, set up a cooperative known as Tanma, which comprised three groups of different ethnic communities: Mang Tha, Kaoprise and Chin Women’s Organisation.
Tanma means “strong. The women stand together in developing their activities with the support of local and international stakeholders to improve their livelihood. This cooperative not only provides them revenue to support their families, but it also shows their resilience. Yesterday, on International Women’s Day, Tanma and Tenaganita organised a photography exhibition portraying the beautiful identity of these women. The purpose was to share, celebrate and validate the achievements and courage of these forgotten and unsung heroines. Their identity as strong and brave women of their land, yet firm, gentle and loving, is displayed and amplified through the proud wearing of their traditional costumes.
This year’s celebration of International Women’s Day emphasises the agenda of gender equality and empowerment for women and girls. Tenaganita urges the government to recognise refugees in the country as human beings with rights and dignity, by signing and ratifying the UN Convention. We call on the government to stop arbitrary arrests and detentions, and to give them their right to work, health and education. Tenaganita calls on Malaysians to respect refugees and give them respect, support and dignity. They have been forced to flee for their lives from their home country because they are persecuted on the basis of their beliefs or ideology or dissent. They did not choose to come to our country to live off our prosperous economy. They came here in hope that their lives will be safer than it is back home. GLORENE A. DAS, Executive director, Tenaganita Women’s Force, Kuala Lumpur
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