At 61, Betty Yeoh is an old pro at this: she bats her eyes patiently at the camera, flicking away a stray strand of hair, before crossing her arms on top of the framed poster. Her silver spectacles slide down her nose, hiding the tops of her large, hooded eyes.

“You know,” she says conversationally, her face held still for the camera. “This is the poster that we first used back in 1985 for our workshop on violence against women.”

The poster – depicting a woman dancing in front of a tan background, with Violence Against Women emblazoned beside her body – was brought down from the training room in the attic. The glass is free of smudgy fingerprints, glinting brightly in the light.

“We didn’t have stylish posters back then,” Yeoh says, laughing. She is a small woman whose dainty feet don’t quite touch the floor when she reclines on the sofa. Even so, her laugh is a full-throated cackle, long and loud.

One of the founding members of the All Women’s Action Society (Awam), Yeoh has been at the heart of the organisation since it was established in 1985. She was one of the pioneering women who attended a historic two-day workshop to highlight violence against women 31 years ago. The Joint Action Group (JAG) – a coalition of women’s rights groups – had organised the event, titled Violence Against Women.

In recent years, Awam has organised a White Ribbon Run to raise awareness about the role men can play to end domestic violence. Photo: Awam

In recent years, Awam has organised a White Ribbon Run to raise awareness about the role men can play to end domestic violence. Photo: Awam

“At the time, I was secretary for the women’s section of the Malaysian Trade Union Congress,” she says. “We came together to talk about all forms of violence against women. From the trade union, I talked about sexual harassment. WAO spoke about wife battering. The Selangor Consumers Association talked about the negative portrayal of women in advertisements and in the media. The last topic was prostitution.”

What made this gathering so important, she continues, was the mobilising of “ordinary women” from the estates and factories. They came, they talked and they role-played, while their husbands tended to dirty diapers and pacified restless children.

In the 1980s, violence against women was an issue shrouded in secrecy and shame. It was kept behind closed doors, a private matter between husband and wife. In those days, there was no law against domestic violence and no labour laws to protect women from sexual harassment.

“What were most women’s groups about those days?” Yeoh huffs, rubbing her knuckles against her palm. “At that point in time, the women’s groups were for cooking, sewing, flower arranging and netball.” Her eyebrows, pencilled in two prominent arches, seem ready to take flight. She is angry, a frown creasing her forehead.

Then the impassioned trainer takes over, the ardent feminist who has spent her life defending the rights of women. “What really drew us all together to form Awam was this notion we had that all women must know their rights, to stop them from being used or from being victims of violence. The other key thing was we all believed women had rights.”

Out of this lively workshop, Awam was born. From the beginning, a rights-based approach set the NGO apart. They focused on advocacy, law reform, public education and outreach. Their primary concern was still gender-based violence and how to move this “personal” affair into the public sphere.

“In the initial years our objective was quite clear: we wanted to campaign to end violence against women. We wanted to support and empower women,” she says. “And from 1985, one of the first things we took on was to come up with a Domestic Violence Act.”

The personal is political

Yeoh’s birth was registered at Campbell Police Station (now Dang Wangi Headquarters) in Kuala Lumpur, a fact she mirthfully reveals with a long, low cackle. She wasn’t born in the police station, she jokes, but at home with the help of a midwife.

Growing up with a sister and two brothers, she was an active and social child, signing up and joining many school societies.

Nothing and nobody, however, could pry her away from her beloved library of books. The studious scholar, prone to sickness, would only take her medicine when her schoolbooks were thrown out. Education was the way to a better life, but it also opened up the world to a curious mind.

At home, a matriarchal grandmother ruled the family with an iron fist. The Yeoh women are tough and uncompromising, women who affect change rather than wait passively for life to pass by. “My grandmother, one of my aunties, my sister and me – we’re all very tough women. We don’t let people bully us. Even my mother, without much education, really educated us. She used life lessons to teach us right from wrong.”

Yeoh is a lifelong learner, gifted with an intellect able to absorb a range of topics. In the corporate world, she was a human resources manager. In her work with Awam, she has been a para-counsellor, a trainer and educator.

“Sadly, my family didn’t have the finances to put me through university,” she says. “As I worked, I picked up my own certificates, my own diploma, my own degree. I graduated at the age of 53. An old graduate!”

But before Awam, she confesses, life was somewhat staid and dull. “I had this very ordinary life until I met this amazing group of people at Awam.”

“I’ve spent half of my life here,” she says, surprised by how long it’s been. “In terms of growth, we’ve grown together.”

Yeoh has been happy to see Awam's staff and membership grow over the years. Photo: Awam

Yeoh has been happy to see Awam’s staff and membership grow over the years. Photo: Awam

“What I get from Awam is the opportunity to learn various things … all these subjects no university can teach you,” she declares. “Through Awam, I’ve been very fortunate to travel all over the world. Through Awam, I’ve been educated in the university of the world.”

Some of her proudest moments – the milestones of her career – are the NGO’s successes. She recounts them with undisguised pride. After nine years of lobbying, the Domestic Violence Act 1994 was finally passed.

“We started to campaign from 1985 until the act got passed in 1994. The Domestic Violence Act didn’t come from the Government; it came from the women’s movement. It came from JAG,” she says.

In 1995, when Malaysia became a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), Yeoh and Awam were at the forefront of the debate, pushing the Government to amend the Constitution to ensure that there would be no discrimination on the basis of gender. In 2001, Article 8(2) was amended to include gender as a basis for non-discrimination.

Since 2004, Awam has been invested in the White Ribbon Campaign, which calls for the involvement of men in combatting violence against women.

“We actually brought the founder of the campaign, Michael Kaufman, over to do a workshop to train men to understand the issue of violence against women.”

The campaign took off in Canada in 1991, founded by a group of feminist men who wanted to end male violence against women and girls. The movement is active in 60 countries.

“Subsequently, we actually had a group of local men who formed the Men’s Action Network Against Violence (Man.V). That’s how they wrote this manual,” she says, pointing to the yellow manual on the table, the one she carefully held as countless photos of her were taken. “It talks about how men are mostly the perpetrators (of violence), but that they can also be the solution.”

From a core group of around 15 women, over the decades Awam has added to its staff and membership. There are now 60 members, most of whom work in different committees and collectively decide the direction of the organisation.

Since the 1990s, the NGO has offered para-counselling services to victims of domestic violence. In universities, hospitals and police stations up and down the country, Awam also provides training on gender issues like violence against women and children, women’s rights, and women and leadership. In this area, Yeoh has made her greatest contribution.

“My pet love is training. Even when I’m sick, the minute I start training, I’m fine,” she says. She has conducted gender sensitisation workshops for hospital staff and police, so they can better empathise with female victims who receive treatment or lodge reports.

“We put the doctors and the police through training to show them how women experience violence. For five minutes they can’t even stand it, what more women who come to them after enduring it (violence) for three or five years?”

She pauses briefly, before continuing: “One policeman said to me, ‘Now I understand how a victim feels.’ That one sentence is enough to make my day.

“I find it’s through training that I make people change their minds,” she explains. “When you cannot change the law, you can change people’s mindsets. And training becomes a tool for us to change the mindsets of people. That’s my contribution.”

Full steam ahead

Though now “semi-retired”, Yeoh is not quite in her dotage. She isn’t singing any swan songs yet, she’ll have you know. “I work every day, from 9am to about 2.30pm. Then I stop. The rest of my time are TV hours.”

Her dark brown hair is tucked behind her ears, her side parting chalk-white at the roots. Her glasses, to her despair, keep inching down her nose.

She’s now the training advisor at Awam, an official position for a woman who has been central to the NGO’s growth and goals since its inception. You get the sense that, even as she steps back, she’s very much in the fray.

“As long as Awam is here and needs me, I do plan to be around to support it, especially using my training skills,” she says.

In the meantime, she volunteers at the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR), and is a global trainer for the Women’s Learning Partnership in the United States.

“When people are active, they just don’t know how to relax,” she says, chuckling at herself.

“But I’ll try to explain it simply: right now, it’s Awam, home, sleep, and more Awam!”

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