Empowering refugee men and women to prevent Sexual and Gender-based violence


A refugee woman attends a self-defence workshop at an event commemorating the 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV)  © UNHCR/Patricia Krivanek

KUALA LUMPUR, 3 December 2018 (UNHCR) - Refugee communities and civil society groups in Malaysia came together in a commitment to protect women and girls against sexual and gender-based violence, in an event commemorating the 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) on 29 November.

The one day event held at the YMCA Kuala Lumpur, was attended by some 242 refugee men and women who participated in a series of seminars and workshops run by NGOs on issues such as understanding rights, self-defence, coping skills, and establishing healthy relationships.

The event aimed to prevent, mitigate, and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, particularly in transforming attitudes of men and women through education and empowerment.

 “Sexual and gender-based violence is a scourge that affects all societies. It is completely blind to class, to colour, to wealth - it has everything to do with being civilised and being a respectful member of the human race,” said Richard Towle, UNHCR Representative at the opening ceremony.

“This form of violence is supported by ignorance, indifference, and fear. The way to address it is through education, through not allowing the cycles and patterns of the past to be replicated in the future, and through the courage to stand up and speak out against violence.

Each of us has the agency to do something about this, and we all must take responsibility to make a difference.”

Towle ended his speech by leading the participants in a community pledge to end sexual and gender-based violence.

UNHCR Malaysia Representative, Mr. Richard Towle speaks at an event commemorating the 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV)  © UNHCR/Patricia Krivanek

During the opening ceremony, Yana* a refugee woman from the Yemeni community, spoke up against child marriage, and illustrated through a personal story the cycles of abuse, violence, and mental anguish that young girls go through when society sees them as nothing more than commodity.

“Girls are told from young to live a life that their parents expect. She can’t be free, because we are trapped by the norms and culture of our society that don’t allow a girl to dream, or to dream of being happy,” said Yana.

Hakim*, a Rohingya man working in ICMC’s refugee women’s protection programme, spoke about the role men play in empowering women, emphasising that both men and women must be engaged in preventing SGBV.

“Gender roles are constructed by culture and society. Understanding this, inspired me to change my own behaviour. I realised before I could create awareness on SGBV, my own behaviour needed to change. If my behaviour is inconsistent with my belief, how could I share this knowledge with my community, or convince others (to respect women)?” said Hakim.

Hakim spoke about how men needed to recognise women as their equals. For Hakim, this started at home.

“I was taught that housework was a woman’s responsibility,” said Hakim. “My wife worked like a robot, from morning to night. I regret not helping her before.”

Hakim learnt to cook and do household chores and childcare, so that his wife would have time to do her own activities like undergoing capacity-building training.

“I like equality. I want my wife to be my equal,” said Hakim. “I also teach my children that one gender is not better than the other. Breaking gender stereotypes must begin at home. This is a big breakthrough for me. And this is what I tell other Rohingya men.”

A Yemeni refugee family pose for a picture at an event commemorating the 16 Days of Activism against Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV)  © UNHCR/Patricia Krivanek

The commemorative event was jointly organised by a network of organisations involved in preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence in various communities, including refugees.

The organisers were UNHCR, the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), Asylum Access, the Malaysian Social Research Institute (MSRI), Engender, SEN Master Academy, Global Shepherds, UKM’s Centre for Psychological Wellbeing & Counselling, Tenaganita, and National Council of Women’s Organisations Malaysia.


*Name changed to protect identity