When it comes to driving gender equality and curtailing the problem of gender-based violence in Malaysia, Nisha Sabanayagam is no stranger to the cause.
As the programme and operations manager of All Women ‘s Action Society (AWAM), an independent feminist non-profit organisation established in 1985, she completely owns the vision of the NGO by actively lending her voice to national-level gender sensitive programming including drafting national-level policies and building alliances with other women’s rights networks to advocate for various gender-based issues in the country.
The former journalist has been working with non-profits since 2008, starting off as a humanitarian aid worker with MERCY Malaysia in several countries. Her ability to engage with people of all levels, be it local villagers or high-ranking government officials, as well as different nationalities, is what makes her approachable and engaging.
More recently, Nisha has been raising her voice to speak against sexual harassment in the office and beyond by pushing for the Sexual Harassment Bill to be passed. The bill which was so close to being realised in 2020 was delayed and cannot be passed into law at this point since the parliament is under suspension.
We speak to Nisha about this year’s International Women’s Day theme – #ChooseToChallenge, where we can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality; because from challenge comes change. We can seek out and celebrate women’s achievements while helping to create an inclusive world.
My choice is very much influenced by the work that I do in AWAM, and our main focus in AWAM is to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV). Therefore, this year I choose to challenge and attempt to change the attitudes and behaviour that allow for violence against women to occur. I will do this via my role in spearheading AWAM in its programs of awareness on the issues of GBV and empowering women through leadership development and capacity building.
Ironically, I experienced gender bias when I started working in a large multinational, an extremely well-known organisation. It was quite a surprise to the then naive me. I expected progressive ideas and actions in this global organisation but what I experienced was quite the opposite. I worked with people who were well travelled and who themselves worked with all kinds of people from various countries, but yet they still retained archaic gendered norms in their psyche. This was reflected in the organisational culture. Most of the people in the top positions were men. The pictures of the directors and top country heads would only show two or three women, thorns amongst the males. These top roles could have been easily helmed by capable women.
Ironically the men would be supported by a retinue of women. In my case, I had a boss who had huge expectations of the women, yet was extremely lax with the men, most of whom were paid several times more than the women. We had a male colleague who would literally sleep in the office and he was not reprimanded at all. I voiced out my dissatisfaction and there were definitely repercussions. I finally had to leave my job. I was however given closure years later, when I heard that the company hired a new global HR director, who made changes that was geared towards better practices of gender equality. That experience taught me that gender norms are ingrained deep in society. Even people from the (so called) more progressive country can still have the most patriarchal of values.
Gender equality has to be ingrained from young and the best way to do this is through an education system that teaches such values and norms. The media, advertising and entertainment sector also have roles to play – the work that they produce must not be inherently influenced by a gender bias, as their subliminal messages can really influence society. As community members, we all have a role to play to ensure that we do not encourage stereotypical norms and we must try consciously to be as inclusive as possible. Of course, this is easier said than done, even amongst those most enlightened of us, but we must try the best that we can. Because believe you me, we have a long battle ahead of us.
We could also encourage more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and motivate men to get into arts while children should be encouraged to do what they like and should be made more confident to succeed in fields of their choice.
International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated around the globe annually on 8 March; first taking place in the year 1911. The day spotlights social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, and this year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge, calling on the world to initiate conversations that bring about change. Prestige Malaysia speaks to women who to choose to challenge through their respective careers.