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Why We Need More Domestic Violence Shelters

Last week, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on violence against women told the UN Human Rights Council that governments have a human rights obligation to provide shelters for domestic violence survivors.  The Malaysian government must heed this call and establish more domestic violence shelters in Malaysia.

Domestic violence shelters are sorely lacking in Malaysia. There are 42 gazetted shelters in Malaysia, of which 34 are government-run. Each year, government shelters collectively house a total of just 32 domestic violence survivors, on average (these shelters are not exclusively for domestic violence).

Meanwhile, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), which runs the largest gazetted domestic violence shelter, houses over 100 domestic violence survivors each year. Demand for our shelter services constantly exceeds our capacity.

This means that an overwhelming majority of domestic violence survivors do not have access to life-saving shelter services. We know that domestic violence is a massive problem, that affects many women. 

9% of ever-partnered Malaysian women have been abused by their partner, according to a 2014 study by Universiti Sains Malaysia. This translates to a staggering sum of over 800,000 (that’s close to a million!) Malaysian women, who have or will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. 

Shelters are a lifeline for women who decide to leave abusive homes. It is so easy for us to casually question “Why don’t they just leave?” when we hear about women in abusive relationships. What we don’t often consider is — “Where can they go?”

Many survivors don’t have family or friends they can turn to. This was what Yasmin, a domestic violence survivor, experienced.

Yasmin’s husband hit her every week, causing bruises all over her body, and on one occasion, a broken neck. He also stole money from Yasmin using her ATM card, and harassed Yasmin’s friend and family for loans. As a result, Yasmin was ostracised and isolated from her family and friends. 

When Yasmin eventually decided to leave, she had nowhere to go, and could not support herself and her children financially. Fortunately, a friend referred her to WAO, where she found shelter and protection. Yasmin is now looking for a job, so she can live independently and support her family. 

Yasmin’s story shows that shelter coupled with a support system can save a woman’s life, by giving her a safe space to do one thing many of us take for granted – simply to live and survive.

The UN Special Rapporteur stressed that governments “must help victims rebuild their lives and overcome the multiple consequences of violence. This requires access to affordable, appropriate services and protection measures.” We at WAO cannot agree more.

The Malaysian government must establish more domestic violence shelters — and allocate more funds to run and manage these shelters. Social workers and counsellors are also an essential part of shelter services, as they provide crucial emotional support to women and their children. Hence, the government must provide comprehensive shelter services, which includes social work and counselling.

Domestic violence survivors have a right to shelter and protection. By providing such services, we can save women’s lives.

Ambassador of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

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