Keeping lifelines open: The front-liners to survivors of domestic violence and child abuse

In the wake of Covid-19, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) trained crisis support officers and social workers who take pride in sustained excellence helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse felt anxious, frustrated and helpless.

As with many organisations, the Covid-19 pandemic radically changed the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) approach to serving victims of domestic violence and child abuse.

“It has been a steep learning curve experience for us”, shares Alicia Lee, the WAO Community Engagement Officer. “Overnight, we had to re-strategise our work approach very quickly”.

Personnel virtual conference calls are a norm and often used to check in with each other, helping to boost team members morale, especially those living on their own. WAO decided to expand its service coverage to survivors outside of Klang Valley taking in cases as far as the east of Malaysia.

“One disturbing case that stuck with me emotionally was a child abuse case in Sarawak. The team, based in the Klang Valley, planned and coordinated a rescue plan via telephone with local authorities in that area. The anticipation, of not knowing if it would be a success was unnerving”, shares Alicia.

WAO Crisis Support Officers on Hotline duty

For much of the MCO period, staffs, including social workers, who work directly with survivors are forced to work from home. Calls for help to the WAO Hotline doubled. Opening hours to the hotline is extended to 24 hours with 8-hour shifts spread across 15 officers. Personnel from other departments are called in to manage the increasing number of calls and provide help, within the confines of the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) set by the government.

Very soon, crisis support officers and social workers increasingly felt anxious and helpless as they were unable to serve victims and survivors on the ground in their time of desperation.

Realities on the ground

A turning point for Alicia was when “A survivor decided to jump out of her balcony just to escape her abuser”, she recalled. “It shows just how much she was willing to do to live a life free from abuse. It was hard to hear and accept that these are the realities for a lot of survivors”.

“I find it hard to keep a positive attitude,” said Alicia. “Having job security and safe home when so many others do not have that luxury made me question myself, how do I create impacts with the position that I am in?”

Another case that stuck to Alicia happened on the first day of MCO when a report came in about a survivor and a child who was severely beaten. They could not find a way to escape. WAO quickly mobilise their network and successfully coordinated with the police force to undertake a rescue mission.

“There are so many cases like this particularly during MCO and it has taken an emotional toll on a lot of us”.
At the end of 8-hour shifts, “Our crisis support offers are required to go through debriefing sessions to ensure that they themselves are in a good headspace and are able to talk to someone about what they have been experiencing, especially while on Hotline duty".

Social workers are provided with counselling services to keep their spirit high and cope with their feeling of frustration being forced to work from home, as they are the ones, normally would guide and bring survivors to the police, making reports, taking them to courts; making sure their needs are met. “They worry for the safety of the survivors”, shares Alicia.

The pandemic magnified existing issues such as job security, access to healthcare and education with at-risk communities such as single mothers and children affected the most.

Most survivors who had jobs and successfully reintegrated into society are on daily paid wages and when the MCO was imposed, the money stops flowing into households. Suddenly, they were unable to pay for rent, food and basic utilities. This created a lot of stress, anxiety and frustration. “As much as we can, we checked in with them and provided food and monetary aid”.

What most people do not realise is that children’s access to education was greatly affected. Not every household has internet connections, even those in Klang Valley. There is no money to afford phone credits and data plan for children to learn online. No money for smartphones, tablets or laptops. “Some children decided that they do not want to learn anymore”, Alicia recalls.

Living the ‘new normal’

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Movement Control Order (MCO) restrictions highlighted the generosity of Malaysians ranging from individuals, private companies and foundations to provide not only monetary assistance but also much-needed supplies. Nevertheless, supplies especially during the Restricted Movement Control Order (RMCO) period, were never enough.

The WAO has a wishlist of items that have been requested by the survivors such as smartphones and laptops for children of survivors to continue learning online.

WAO also follows up with survivors to check if they have adequate resources and help if needed. For example, WAO ensures and guide survivors apply for government assistance that is made available due to the pandemic.

Much of WAO’s work during MCO is online-based. Information and key messages are conveyed on social media to spread awareness of domestic violence and child abuse. For example, WAO published a list of signs to look for in cases of abuse and violence and the actions that the general public can do to make a difference.

“You will be surprised at the impact of one person can make. A single phone call can change lives. A single message in social media can generate positive ripple effects and bring about the difference between life and death”.

What is needed

The Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) has been around since 1982 and through the years have amassed a large amount of data and information that have guided them in planning works.

“We are focusing a lot more of our effort on mental health issues and fundraising as our resources are stretched very thin. We felt that the well-being of at-risk communities such as single mothers was not taken into account when government aid packages were rolled out such as the issue of survivors who are in the process of divorce unable to apply for government aid”, informs Alicia.

The WAO is working with relevant authorities looking at existing government policies and schemes and has highlighted concerns and make appropriate recommendations to include these at-risk communities.

Now that that nation is in recovery MCO period, “What we need now is more job opportunities for our survivors” said Alicia. Monetary aids are critical to ensure WAO can continue providing free services to survivors.

WAO services include initiatives such as the Women & Children’s Programme, crisis counselling for mother and child, social work and case management and Back-to-Work Programme.

Specifically, WAO conduct programs such as financial literacy and basic computer skills. Alicia reveals that “Most survivors do not know how to conduct online banking transactions, much less work on Excel sheets, things that we take for granted”.

“Our long-term aim is to provide skills training for survivors to re-enter the workforce, become self-sustainable and re-integrated into society. Additional support in terms of funding from people who believe in the work WAO does is incredibly important to ensure that we are able to continue advocating for a violent-free and gender equal Malaysia.”.

Find out how you can make a difference at; or via Facebook; and Twitter @womensaidorg.

Alicia Lee is the Community Engagement Officer, Partnership and Development at Women's Aid Organisation (WAO).