Skip to Main Navigation
FEATURE STORY March 2, 2021

Leading the Way in Malaysia: Sumitra Visvanathan


For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re sitting down with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are working towards a more equal future in a COVID-19 world. After a career spanning over 15 years with the UNHCR, Sumitra Visvanathan returned to Malaysia to lead the Women’s Aid Organization as its Executive Director.

How did you start working in this field?

I have always been motivated by the need to protect people in crisis. I worked with the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in various roles. I established and managed refugee protection operations for UNHCR, my last duty station being Baghdad, Iraq. After working to protect refugees across the globe for most of my adult life, I decided to return to Malaysia. The opportunity to lead WAO was irresistible. I jumped at the chance to pursue a life-long dream to work for impact in my own country. Shifting from refugee protection expertise to gender equality was a surprisingly tough learning curve. I learnt that I had to reflect and do the inner work on myself, addressing and re-framing my own biases and self-limiting ideas. This had to happen along with developing fresh strategies, building and leading an enhanced WAO team to achieve impact for our goals. It’s been a wonderful journey so far and I feel we have indeed made impact, along with all our partners.

What is the type of work done by the WAO in Malaysia?

For over 38 years, WAO has grown to become Malaysia’s foremost provider of crisis support services. As change advocates for women, our path is determined by the end goal of guaranteeing gender equality and eliminating violence and discrimination against women and girls in Malaysia.

We have an “All of WAO” approach, meaning our work is synergized, rights-based, and aims for sustainability. We deliver standard-setting shelter and support services for women and children survivors of gender-based violence and discrimination. We strengthen the state’s response to survivors through legislative and policy reforms, and by monitoring the implementation of the legal framework. We build communities’ capacity to identify and respond to violence, and reform mindsets through tailored training, awareness programs, and media engagement.

What are the challenges for women in Malaysia that have arisen during the pandemic?

In our decades of experience, WAO has assisted so many women who have not only been survivors of gender-based violence, but survivors of discrimination. We’ve seen how survivors of domestic violence face further marginalization from society through discrimination in the workplace, and we’ve also seen how discrimination and harassment in the workplace can make women more financially dependent and more vulnerable to violence at home. The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities of women in the home, evidenced by the sharp increase in incidences of domestic violence. Gender inequality breeds violence as it casts women as lesser than men, and less deserving of rights.

How has the pandemic impacted your work, and how have you adapted in response to it?

The need for social justice is more critical during times of social and economic hardship as experienced in 2020. Our work and reach expanded tremendously, despite physical access restrictions. For instance, our WAO Hotline and crisis service saw an exponential increase.

Following WHO’s alert of a potential global pandemic in January 2020, WAO mobilized immediately to address the anticipated increased rates of violence against women during the pandemic period. We also needed to pivot towards virtual support, operating primarily through our Hotlines, virtual meets for counseling sessions and vigorous public information and outreach through our social media.

WAO was also approached by the government to alert on the prevalence of domestic violence cases received through our Hotlines, and subsequently WAO was able to share critical information with the Ministry of Health (MOH). Recognizing the effectiveness of our response, all domestic violence related calls received on their Hotline are now being diverted to the WAO Hotline. This is a tremendous development, as this means that WAO has been given the immense task and responsibility as the national focal point of responding to domestic violence calls throughout Malaysia during this pandemic.

This year’s theme being ‘Women in Leadership’, what are some of the leadership lessons you have learnt in this position?

Personal accountability is very important to me, and it’s a fundamental part of leading. I have a set of personal ethics, including a commitment to live feminist ideals, which I work hard to preserve and maintain even in the face of the highest hurdles. It isn’t easy. Doing the right thing is sometimes harder than the opposite. Its best to lead because your people recognize this sort of honest, self-aware integrity. It builds trust. Self-respect and self-knowledge is also fundamentally needed in a leader.  I have learnt that understanding myself, recognizing my inner challenges, and validating my own aspirations is key. I never, ever settle on being only what others expect of me. It’s about being who you want yourself to be. Leadership needs this inner knowledge of self, a vision of the best version of yourself, and the personal courage to make the change that is needed. I have found that a will to lead that comes from honesty, integrity, self-awareness inspires others to join you. It’s also about creating the space for everyone to be who they need to be, and do what they need to do, to ensure all meet the common goals.

Do you have any advice for women fighting for change?

“Eyes on” is a phrase that I learnt from UN security teams. I have always valued the UN security officer in conflict zones for their utter focus and courage. Interestingly, I find this laser quality of focus is very useful in advocacy and in promoting social change. “Eyes on” the social change goal at all times. You are much less likely to waver along the path to social change if your eye is always on the end goal. Easier said than done, but nonetheless this is an approach that has kept me going.


**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.